Keys Coral Reefs First In U.S. To Receive International Protection

Thursday, November 14, 2002
Deputy Secretary of Commerce Sam Bodman joined with shipping industry representatives today to announce that the department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has taken historic steps through the International Maritime Organization to create the first U.S. zone to protect coral from anchors, groundings and collisions from large international ships. The zone, known as the Florida Keys' Particularly Sensitive Sea Area, is more than 3,000 square nautical miles and is one of only five such areas in the world. Starting Dec. 1, ships greater than 164 ft. in length transiting the zone will be held to internationally accepted and enforceable rules. The rules direct ship captains to avoid certain areas within the zone altogether and abide by three no-anchoring areas within the zone. All nautical charts produced worldwide will now show the Florida Particularly Sensitive Sea Area and address, these protective measures. More than 40 percent of the world's commerce passes through the Florida Straits each year. Ten large ship groundings have occurred in the zone since 1984 and coral damage by rogue anchoring by large ships or freighters has occurred 17 times since 1997. "This rare international form of protection now awarded to fragile Florida Keys coral reefs is an example of how federal resource managers can work closely with industry to protect vulnerable natural resources while simultaneously supporting shipping and economic growth. Both ship trade and the tourism tied to the Keys coral reefs have vital economic significance to the state and region," said Deputy Secretary of Commerce Samuel W. Bodman at a news conference held in the Commerce Building in Washington, D.C. "This protective status makes the international shipping community aware of the coral reefs and increases compliance with domestic measures already in place to protect the area, while not hindering trade and commerce." NOAA received strong support from the state government of Florida while applying for official status of the protective zone, as well as from U.S. shipping interests, which have been complying with similar domestic protective policy for years now. "The State of Florida recognizes the importance of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the protections that already exist on a national scale," said Florida Governor Jeb Bush. "This is yet another step to ensure that our international shipping community is aware of the protections we have put in place for this unique ecosystem. Florida has an important natural resource that must be protected." Also speaking at the news conference in support of these measures was Joe Cox, president of the Chamber of Shipping of America, which represents 21 U.S.-based shipping companies, who said, "It is imperative that the maritime industry support environmental protection initiatives that maintain the ability to continue efficient, effective and environmentally responsible marine transportation," he said. "The free flow of commerce and protection of our marine environment demand nothing less." NOAA and the U.S. delegation worked on behalf of the State of Florida to submit a proposal to the IMO to designate the marine area that stretches from Biscayne National Park to the Tortugas and encompasses all of NOAA's Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The IMO is a United Nations Specialized Agency that is responsible for issues relating to international shipping. The waters around the Florida Keys and the Tortugas are some of the most heavily trafficked shipping areas in the world. Over the years, ships have caused damage to the coral reef ecosystem through anchoring, groundings, collisions and accidental or operational discharges of harmful substances. To gain approval for a protected sea area, a nation must identify maritime-interest compliance measures with which the IMO can direct ships to comply. For the Florida Keys' Particularly Sensitive Sea Area these measures are four "areas to be avoided" that prevent large ships from traveling too close to the coral reef. This amendment to the northernmost area to be avoided was developed in response to comments by mariners operating in the area because of the risk of collisions that could result in devastating pollution to the reefs. Yet another measure declares three mandatory no-anchoring areas that protect fragile reefs in the Tortugas. While protecting the fragile coral against the significant destruction that can be caused by the dragging and swinging of large anchors, this measure also takes into account the interests of shipping and commerce by continuing to allow ships to navigate through this area. While these measures are in place domestically, adoption by the IMO means these areas will appear on international charts, thus increasing mariner awareness and compliance. For instance, although the no-anchoring zones protecting the deep reefs of the Tortugas have been in place since 1997 and appear on NOAA nautical charts, many foreign-flagged vessels travel the area and carry non-NOAA charts that do not identify this zone. Thus, while anchoring incidents have declined since 1997, NOAA continues to document violations. The four other particularly sensitive sea areas are the Great Barrier Reef, Australia; the Sabana-Camaguey Archipelago, Cuba; Malpelo Island, Colombia; and the Wadden Sea proposed by Denmark, the Netherlands, and Germany. NOAA and the State of Florida, through a co-trustee agreement, manage the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The congressionally designated sanctuary was signed into law Nov. 16, 1990 by President George Bush. It protects 2,896 square nautical miles stretching from Biscayne Bay to the Tortugas, and encompasses some of this nation's most significant marine resources.
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