On June 21, I gave a lecture at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium on behalf of Cousteau Divers. The presentation focused on the positive impacts humans can have on the marine environment through the study and protection of marine habitats and species.
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) is distinct from other aquariums and institutes with captive marine mammals in that it functions entirely as a hospital for the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of sick or injured marine animals. Any marine animal that is unable to return to the wild remains at the CMA in order to educate visitors on the threats marine animals face in the wild, such as abandoned nets and crab traps, boating collisions, and pollution.
As a marine economist, my main research focus is the socio-economic benefits of marine protected areas, specifically looking at different types of management strategies and how those strategies are reflected in short and long term outcomes.
According to the IUCN, a marine protected area (MPA) is
“Any area of the intertidal or subtidal terrain, together with its overlying water and associated flora, fauna, historical and cultural features, which has been reserved by law or other effective means to protect part or all of the enclosed environment.”
Worldwide, only 1.1% of ocean habitats are protected by MPAs, whereas 12% of terrestrial habitats are protected.
In the United States, marine sanctuary is the common term for marine protected areas designed to “to conserve, protect, and enhance their biodiversity, ecological integrity and cultural legacy”. Currently, there are thirteen marine sanctuaries in the United States and one marine national monument. Of these, only two are in the Gulf of Mexico. These two sanctuaries protect approximately 3,390 square miles of sea grass beds, coral reefs, coral-sponge communities, and deep water habitats.
One of these marine sanctuaries is perhaps the most renown – the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. However, my personal favorite is the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary.
Designated in 1992, this sanctuary protects the northernmost coral reefs in the United States from the adverse impacts of fishing, anchoring, and oil exploration and drilling. The sanctuary is home to an incredible array of tropical fish, huge manta rays, sea turtles, the occasional whale shark, and an annual migratory group of Great Hammerheads.
The very thought of pristine coral reefs just 120 miles out of Galveston is surprising and almost unbelievable – a testament to the incredible benefits of the marine sanctuary designation.
Despite its protected status, the sanctuary is surrounded by oil rigs and platforms and evidence of illegal fishing gear sometimes appears on the site. There is actually an operational platform within the sanctuary, a relic from the days before it was protected. Just like in West Palm Beach, Lionfish are becoming a growing threat in the Flower Garden Banks Sanctuary. During my visit last October, our crew caught three in the sanctuary. There is an ongoing effort and a proposal to expand the sanctuary borders, uniting the three individual banks and incorporating nearby banks with a similar wealth of biodiversity, and to provide additional protection against anthropogenic threats.
If you are interested in diving the Flower Garden Banks Sanctuary, I highly recommend booking a trip with the M/V Fling. Their professional crew and well equipped vessel will ensure a great weekend trip.
Beyond the Flower Garden Banks sanctuary exists an entire network of “islands” of life, connected along the Gulf Stream. Although some of these habitats are deepwater reefs beyond recreational diving limits, they provide important nutrients and plankton that supplement shallower water reefs. The hope is to one day protect all of these banks and create a “network” of marine protected areas throughout the Gulf. This would enhance each habitat’s resilience to adverse events, such as oil spills, and potentially increase biodiversity and abundance of species. In total, these protected areas would only protect 1/5 of 1% of the Gulf of Mexico. Such a small, but significant, area of protection would still allow other human activities to continue while protecting important habitats and ensuring a healthy Gulf.
The proliferation of oil exploration and drilling along the Gulf continental shelf and the socio-economic importance of commercial and recreational fisheries pose the biggest challenge to designating additional marine protected areas in the Gulf of Mexico. However, given that only two sanctuaries exist in our nation’s largest marine ecosystem, whereas five sanctuaries exist along the Pacific coast and three on the Atlantic coast, it is clear that these two sanctuaries are simply not enough for our Gulf coast.
How you can get involved:
The best way to promote the designation of additional marine sanctuaries is through research and public support. Public comment periods provide an opportunity for non-profit organizations, research institutions, industries, and concerned citizens to voice their opinions on management plans for existing or potential marine sanctuaries.
You can also volunteer to help monitor and research existing marine sanctuaries. The concept of marine protected areas is relatively new, compared to that of national parks, and only through research can we better understand the short and long term costs and benefits of such conservation programs.