Marine Protected Areas Would Restore Ocean Health & Improve Fishing in U.S. South Atlantic

Left: Nassau Grouper, Dry Tortugas Ecological Reserve, Courtesy of Nat'l Park Service; Right: Mushroom Coral, Dry Tortugas Ecological Reserve, Courtesy of Nat'l Park Service

In the crystal clear waters of the Dry Tortugas Ecological Reserve, at the western tip of the Florida Keys, fish populations are recovering and thriving once again. Nearly wiped out by overfishing, black and red grouper, and yellowtail and mutton snapper are now swimming safely within the reserve, increasing their numbers and growing in size. And it’s not only the majestic fish within these 150 square nautical miles that are thriving. Research shows that anglers have also benefitted from growing numbers of fish in the waters surrounding the protected area—giving new momentum to current efforts to create effective marine protected areas in the U.S. South Atlantic.

In a recent report, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Massachusetts studied the economic impacts of the Dry Tortugas Ecological Reserve. Their findings were good news for conservationists and fishermen alike. Since 2001, fishermen have experienced no financial losses related to implementation of the reserve. Quite the opposite, catch beyond the reserve’s boundaries has actually grown as depleted species have increased in presence, abundance, and size in and around the reserve. 

This research confirms what we’ve known for decades: a healthy U.S. economy depends on healthy oceans. Some 1.9 million people are employed in commercial and recreational fishing in the U.S. For these hardworking Americans, ensuring healthier fish populations in our waters means more fish to catch and long-term job security.

In the South Atlantic, an important effort is underway to modify and expand a network of marine protected areas to prevent the continued overfishing of some of the world’s most unique creatures. The two species that are the focus of this effort are the speckled hind and warsaw grouper, extraordinary deepwater fish that have dwindled in numbers due to overfishing. Like most grouper, these two species grow very slowly and live up to 40 years—that is, if they make it that long. If allowed to mature, warsaw grouper can get as big as 7 feet long and more than 500 pounds. They also change sex as they age, with all fish born female and only some transitioning into males after 6-9 years. These characteristics make them “extremely vulnerable to overfishing,” according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, and in serious need of continued protections.

These fish are in such dire shape that the government has found that merely prohibiting their capture is not enough to prevent overfishing because they continue to be caught incidentally with other targeted species. And they generally don’t survive being hauled up from deep waters, so the only way to reduce mortality from incidental fishing is by restricting fishing in some of the areas they inhabit. The Fisheries Service did just this in late 2010, but soon thereafter reversed course, completely rescinding the new protections without implementing any alternative measures.

Now fishery managers are trying to set things right. They’re considering a series of marine protected areas in the region that, if implemented correctly, would allow fish populations to recover with minimal impact on commercial and recreational fishing, ultimately restoring ecological health and increasing the amount of fish that can be caught sustainably. To help ensure this happens, post a message of support on the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council's Facebook page.

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