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The Dry Tortugas, sometimes called “Florida’s Yellowstone”, are located on the southwestern Florida shelf about 70 miles west of Key West. The region contains luxuriant coral reefs, other key hardbottom and softbottom habitats, and rich reef fish resources that play a critical role in the Florida Keys regional ecosystem function and dynamics. The Dry Tortugas region also provides the principal spawning and production grounds that support the multibillion dollar commercial and sport fisheries in south Florida.
In the Florida Keys, increased fishing pressure from rapid regional human population growth and environmental changes associated with coastal development have raised concerns about fisheries sustainability and persistence of the coral-reef ecosystem. Historically intense commercial and rising recreational fishing pressures have resulted in unsustainable rates of exploitation for 70% of the “snapper-grouper complex’, which consists of over 50 species, mainly of groupers and snappers, but also of grunts, jacks, porgies, and hogfish. Over the last 40 years, the number of registered recreational vessels in southern Florida has grown by more than 500%. Sport-fishing effort is expected to continue to grow in proportion to regional human populations, which have doubled about every 20 years. The recreational fleet now accounts for a substantial proportion of the total regional catches for some key exploited species.
New ecosystem-based management measures have been enacted in the Florida Keys, including the 1997 implementation of a network of 23 no-take maritime reserves (NTMR) by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. These are relatively small (mean 2 km2, range 0.16–31 km2), comprising only 46 km2 in total area, and have varying levels of protection: four allow catch-and-release surface trolling, and four require a special permit for access.
In July 2001, the Florida Keys network was expanded to become the largest in North America with the implementation of two NTMRs in the Dry Tortugas region that cover about 566 km2. This region is believed to be an extremely important source of recruitment of coral-reef fishes because of its upstream location in the Florida Current, which facilitates advective dispersion and transport of eggs and larvae to the rest of the Keys.
In 2008, a team of 38 research divers from the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, NOAA Fisheries Service, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the National Park Service, REEF, and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington recently completed a successful 20-day biennial census to measure how the protected status of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary’s Tortugas Ecological Reserve and Dry Tortugas National Park’s Research Natural Area are helping the regional ecosystem rebound from decades of overfishing and environmental changes. The unprecedented collaboration allowed the team to complete 1,710 scientific dives, which will now help to further establish a baseline for the state of reef fish stocks and coral reef habitats in Florida’s dynamic marine ecosystem.
Dry Tortugas National Park (DRTO) was formally established by NPS in 1992; however, the Park has been providing much of its current ecological function since 1935 as Fort Jefferson National Monument. DRTO is widely recognized as a unique marine environment with nationally significant natural, scientific, and cultural resources.