Tortugas shining light in Florida's damaged reefs (Environmental News Network / Reuters, 8/28/02)

Precht, Bill Bprecht at
Thu Aug 29 11:19:55 EDT 2002

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Tortugas shining light in Florida's damaged reefs

   By Jim Loney , Reuters

   Environmental News Network

   Wednesday, August 28, 2002

SHERWOOD FOREST, Dry Tortugas, Fla. - In this fecund forest, multihued
toadstool shapes rise from a bountiful floor where strange things jostle
for space, feathery boughs dance on a soft current, and wary eyes glint
from a thousand dark crevasses.

The pale light that filters from above reveals scaly plates creeping over a
stony plateau and downy fingers reaching skyward. Crimson boulders glow,
lit by some internal fire.

Unlike the legendary Nottinghamshire lair of Robin Hood, this fantasy land
called Sherwood Forest is not a royal hunting ground and hideout for wily
outlaws but a real and rare tract of pristine coral reef under 80 feet of
subtropical Florida waters forbidden to maritime hunters.

Some scientists see it as a refuge of hope in a spiraling undersea crisis.

"This is one of the best remaining coral reef habitats in the United States
and the best nursery habitat in the United States," said Billy Causey, a
marine biologist who as superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine
Sanctuary is chief guardian of the Dry Tortugas reefs.

A tiny cluster of sand and coral islands, the remote Dry Tortugas - a
discovery credited to Ponce de Leon in 1513 - host perhaps the United
States' best-protected coral reefs.

While technically part of the Florida Keys, the Tortugas are 70 miles of
open water from the rest of the Keys, a 100-mile-long chain of islands
connected by bridges off the southern tip of the Florida peninsula.

The barrier reef that lies about 6 miles seaward of the Keys has
deteriorated badly in the last two decades, suffering the ravages of global
climate change, polluted water running off the Florida mainland and damage
from scuba divers and fishermen who are part of a booming Keys tourist
economy welcoming more than 2.5 million people a year.


In contrast to the patchy coral at most of the Florida Keys barrier reef,
the Dry Tortugas are teeming with life.

Florida Keys charter boat captain Tim Taylor is generally credited with
naming Sherwood Forest.

"After 20 years of diving down here, the formations are different than
anywhere I've ever seen," he said. "It looks like the floor of a forest, a
giant forest, with the ground cover spreading out and the light filtering
down from above."

Sherwood Forest is largely flat, like a vast coral plain, contrasting
sharply with the canyons and mounds of most reefs. It is probably the
oldest, and possibly the largest coral reef tract in the Florida Keys, said
Walt Jaap, a research scientist at the Florida Marine Research Institute.

"It goes back over 9,000 years," Jaap said. "It's a huge reef, one of the
largest expanses of reef we know of, miles long and a mile in width."

Coral reefs are fragile geological marvels constructed by tiny creatures
called polyps, which grow on a limestone base. Ornate and visually
stunning, they are often compared to flower gardens and are considered
vital to the health of surrounding water, hosting microscopic organisms on
which larger creatures feed and providing shelter for fish, lobster, and
other life.

Reefs grow slowly, as little as half an inch per year, and polyps need the
right combination of light, warmth, and pure water to survive.

At Sherwood Forest and nearby spots with names like Gary's Grotto and
Anne's Rolling Hills, leafy lettuce corals and scroll corals abound. Tube
sponges appear in amber and pale green. Great star coral boulders shine
crimson and orange, their fluorescent pigments emitting color even at
depths where reddish tints normally disappear.

At 80 feet, rare black corals appear. Cherished as jewelry in some parts of
the world, they are more beautiful still in their natural state, with
slender branches like conifer boughs coated in filaments of emerald and

"We're seeing 40 to 60 percent coral cover here," Causey said. "Up the Keys
our scientists are seeing 5 percent up to 15 percent, but mostly 5


A graying, stocky marine biologist who began diving in the '50s and once
collected tropical fish for a living, Causey, 58, speaks zealously about
the need for "marine zoning," similar to landside development zoning, as a
way to guard dwindling fish stocks and corals.

"We've already seen 30 percent of the coral reefs on this planet decline to
the point where they may not survive. We've seen systems that have been on
Earth for 400 million years decline to the point where they may not

"It's almost like seeing a great forest clear-cut. We've seen coral heads
two and three hundred years old die."

Causey's domain is a 2,900-square-nautical-mile area designated by the U.S.
Congress for special protection in 1990. Within that vast area - from the
Dry Tortugas to just south of Miami - lie a series of more rigidly
protected zones, some of which allow no fishing, no discharge of waste,
literally no touching of any marine plant or animal.

That protection is showing results, scientists said.

"I couldn't believe the number of yellowtail on that reef," Causey said. He
said stocks of tiny, colorful tropical fish, larger food fish, lobster and
other creatures pushed to perilous lows by commercial and recreational
fishers, are reappearing.

"The schools of yellowtail were simply not here before. Black grouper were
not here. Those are signs of health."

The isolated Tortugas reefs are cleaner, devoid of the algae that can serve
as a harbinger of trouble. There are only sporadic signs of coral bleaching
or disease.

Along the underwater foundation of Fort Jefferson, the six-sided Civil War-
era fort in the Dry Tortugas, long-spined sea urchins, which suffered a
massive die-off in the 1980s, are plentiful, another good sign.

Corals grow vigorously along the fort wall. When a shrimp boat ran aground
there in January, sanctuary workers cemented brain and other damaged corals
back into place and already they are showing signs of regeneration.

"The corals are looking good," said Steve Baumgartner, a sanctuary
operations manager. "They are getting their color back."

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