Emergency Restoration Underway in Florida's Dry Tortugas

KEY WEST, Florida, February 15, 2002 (ENS) - Federal and state environmental officials have joined forces in Florida to restore coral reefs and seagrass in the Dry Tortugas National Park damaged by three recent shrimp boat groundings and an oil spill.

Over the past two months, three shrimp boats have grounded in the Dry Tortugas National Park, 68 miles west of Key West. On December 16, 2001, one vessel grounded and was successfully removed, but not before significant damage to coral and seagrass beds occurred.

Fort Jefferson

Fort Jefferson dominates one of the seven islands in Dry Tortugas National Park (Photo by Commander Susan McKay, NOAA Corps)
The second incident, on January 3, 2002, involved two shrimp boats that grounded close to the historic Fort Jefferson. One vessel broke up and spilled about 2,000 gallons of diesel fuel. The other was carried by surge and wind up against the moat wall, where it partially broke up.

The groundings occurred within and adjacent to the park's most popular swimming and snorkeling area, and caused "significant injuries" to seagrass and numerous reef corals, the Park Service says.

"The extensive damage caused by the groundings and oil spills in the seagrass and coral in the park's prime visitor swim area is tragic," said Maureen Finnerty, superintendent of Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Parks. "This emergency response for coral salvage and continuing oil spill impacts is absolutely time critical and crucial to the long term restoration effort."


The shallow reefs of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary can sustain heavy damage from grounded ships and oil spills (Photo by Thomas Gibson. Three photos courtesy Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary)
Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began the restoration work near Ft. Jefferson through its Habitat Restoration Center and National Marine Sanctuaries Program. NOAA is working in concert with the National Park Service (NPS), the state of Florida and Mote Marine Laboratory.

Given the remote location of the site, response and salvage efforts are difficult and expensive. The NOAA Restoration Center secured funding agreements from several sources: NOAA Restoration Center funds, the National Marine Fisheries Service Southeast Region coral reef initiative, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection Bureau of Emergency Response and the Disney Corporation's Wildlife Conservation Fund.

Matching in kind support is being provided by the National Park Service, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, NOAA Restoration Center, Florida Marine Research Institute and Florida Department of Environmental Protection. This support will be used to conduct emergency stabilization of the damaged areas and some restoration - particularly of the coral resources.

The U.S. Coast Guard, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Titan Marine Engineering staff have offered response and assistance to work with local park staff to salvage the vessels and assess the extent of damage.

"Experience has shown us that coral reef habitats stand a better chance to rebound quickly if restoration is done soon after damage has occurred," said Bill Hogarth, director of the National Marine Fisheries Service. "We are pleased to be able to swiftly rally resources and support from our partners to meet the restoration needs of these coral reefs and seagrass beds adjacent to Ft. Jefferson in the Dry Torgutas National Park."


The M/V Alec Owen Maitland grounded on a reef in the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary in 1989
This is not the first time that the region has suffered damage extensive enough to require restoration. In November 1989, two large ships, the M/V Elpis and the M/V Alec Owen Maitland, ran hard aground on shallow reefs in the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary, devastating the impact areas, killing or displacing corals, sea fans, and fish, and destroying the physical structure of the underlying reef framework.

Some of the techniques pioneered during reef restoration in the early 1990s will be used to restore the new damage caused by the three groundings in the Dry Tortugas.

The 1989 groundings were important factors in the Congressional designation of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in 1990. The Sanctuary now protects 2,896 square nautical miles of spectacular coral reef ecosystem stretching from Biscayne Bay to the Tortugas through a federal state partnership.

artificial reef

A diver installs a modular section of artificial reef in the Florida Keys
Dry Tortugas National Park, now part of the Keys Sanctuary, consists of a cluster of seven islands, surrounded by 100 square miles of near pristine tropical marine environment. The Florida reef tract is the most extensive living coral reef system in North American waters and the third largest system in the world.

More information about the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is available at: http://www.fknms.nos.noaa.gov