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Sanctuary for Tortugas' Marine Life

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July 23 - 24, 2001 -- On Morning Edition the NPR/National Geographic Society Radio Expeditions team reports on its return to the Dry Tortugas, a small group of uninhabited islets about 70 miles west of Key West at Florida's southern tip.

They went back with researchers to find out what the word "wilderness" means -- underwater.

On and around these bits of land, environmental activists, the fishing community and federal agencies, all are now getting a chance to find out. The answer may matter a lot to those of us who simply like the ocean and want to be able to enjoy the wonders we find in it.

The wilderness idea -- a conservation practice that reserves some public land in its pristine, natural state -- is moving offshore. On July 1st, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary inaugurated a 150-square-mile zone to protect ocean life. Nothing more is to be taken from there -- no fish, no lobsters, no coral -- in the same way that you can't take artifacts from national parks. Boats can tie up to dedicated mooring sites, but not drop anchors, which can cause enormous damage to reefs.

We visit the Dry Tortugas National Park -- site of a stunning 19th century brick fort and enormous colonies of migratory sea birds -- and then launch our Radio Expedition on a rendezvous with researchers who are studying the reefs within the newly created Tortugas Ecological Reserve.

While the site is now completely protected, it is still largely unknown. The shallow areas are familiar enough -- but the reserve extends to a depth 1,800 feet, and nothing below 800 feet has been explored by anyone. Using small subs, the scientists will get a first look at what's there, and begin baseline surveys of the shallower areas as well. Already they've made discoveries that are startling to them, some of which change basic assumptions about how ocean ecosystems work.

Scientists from the National Ocean Service, based at the Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research in Beaufort, North Carolina, want to study how the reserve may change over time.

They are working now to gather as much data as they can before the changes begin to occur. To their own surprise, they are already reaching conclusions that change how they think about coral reef ecosystems.

The National Marine Sanctuaries, established almost 30 years ago, were the subject of a Radio Expeditions series in 1997, Reef Diving in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Marine reserves -- or no-take zones -- were a new concept just emerging then.

Now the first true, large scale reserve in U.S. waters is a reality. And the study, which Radio Expeditions examines in two reports, may be teaching lessons about marine conservation for a long time to come.

To learn more about the Tortugas Ecological Reserve, visit the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Web site.

test See an enlarged map of the marine sanctuary
Map: Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

test See an enlarged map of the ecological reserve
Map: Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

Fort Jefferson Fort Jefferson
Photo: National Park Service

Snapper and grouper spawning habitat Snapper and grouper spawning habitat
Photo: Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

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