September 27, 2016

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By: Angela Smith, Founder and President of Shark Team One


The Story of the Coastal Southeast Florida Hope Spot!

A damselfish in a staghorn coral colony off Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, FL © Angela Smith

A damselfish in a staghorn coral colony off Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, FL © Angela Smith

North of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary exists a critical area of coral reef habitat and other associated marine ecosystems that have been in decline for decades due to overuse and their proximity to the heavily populated cities of Southeast Florida. Although in 1990 the Florida Keys were declared a sanctuary, the reef areas extending from Key Biscayne in the south up to St. Lucie Inlet in the north still remain unprotected.

Southeast Florida marine habitats hold populations of critically endangered species like staghorn and elkhorn coral, and smalltooth sawfish. They are also an important migration route for sperm and humpback whales; a migratory stopover for pelagic shark species such as great white, great hammerhead, tiger, lemon, dusky, bull sharks; a nesting habitat for three species of sea turtles; and a spawning ground for vulnerable fish species such as snook, grouper and snapper.

The Coastal Southeast Florida Hope Spot includes highly significant biological findings like previously unknown fields of more than 35 dense areas of critically endangered Acropora cervicornis coral covering 38 acres! Staghorn coral is among the most important coral species for its ability to build reefs and create habitat for fish and other marine creatures.

However, stressors such as overfishing, sewage outfalls, stormwater runoff pollution, anchor damage, spearfishing, coastal construction, beach renourishment projects, shoreline modification, port expansion projects (dredging) and invasive species, have taken a big toll on our underwater world.

Signs of trouble in the area are loss of sea urchins and reduced schools of parrotfish on our reefs. Parrotfish and sea urchins are voracious herbivores and help keep macroalgae from suffocating coral. Overfishing has led to less parrotfish and other grazers on Southeast Florida reefs, yet in locations worldwide where herbivorous fish are protected from overfishing, the reefs are healthier and are proving to be more resilient.

Dense areas of critically endangered staghorn coral off the coast of Southeast FL © Brian Walker

Dense areas of critically endangered staghorn coral off the coast of Southeast FL © Brian Walker, Nova Southeastern University GIS Remote Sensing Lab

It’s very clear that Southeast Florida needs a holistic ecosystem-based approach to complement single species fishery management and ensure the associated reef ecosystems are protected. To this end, I have been working with key stakeholders and governmental groups on recommended management action plans that provide an integrated approach for ecosystem and coral reef protection. The Hope Spot nomination pertains to a specific action plan that proposes a marine protected area for 105 miles of coastline and associated waters with zoning for no-take reserves which we have mapped at near to 30% of that area.

As you can imagine getting multiple local, state, national government along with fishing, marine industry and conservation groups to all agree can be tough. On one early morning quite some time ago, I had an “Aha” moment and knew immediately what additional forces were needed to pull everyone together and make this marine protected area a reality…a “Hope Spot” designation from Dr. Sylvia Earle and the IUCN World Conservation Congress!

A Hope Spot designation proves the region is significant to protect and qualifies it to be supported as an IUCN marine protected area. We have already sprung into action by using the designation to support the decision making process and are proud to have Coastal Southeast Florida as a new global Hope Spot!

The true “hope” that Mission Blue and the IUCN Hope Spots Council have provided will light the way towards the home stretch for making the Coastal Southeast Florida marine protected area a reality! We hope to set an example for the world. The whole planet needs to band together to protect entire coral reef tracts, diverse types of marine ecosystems and vast areas of ocean.

It has been a longtime dream for me and many other people to connect the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to the region from Key Biscayne to St. Lucie Inlet. The success of the Coastal Southeast Florida Hope Spot will protect these important remaining coral reef and associated marine ecosystems for future generations.

Learn more about the Coastal Southeast Florida Hope Spot and the amazing folks who contributed to coral and ocean ecosystem conservation in Southeast Florida by visiting the Shark Team One website, Facebook page, and twitter.

A spotted eagle ray cruises over a once vibrant artificial reef in Dania Beach, FL © Angela Smith

A spotted eagle ray cruises over a once vibrant artificial reef in Dania Beach, FL © Angela Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

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