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Florida Keys Research Expedition Points to Success of Tortugas Ecological Reserve

August 22, 2012
photo of researchers on small boat in Tortugas Ecological Reserve

Researchers prepare to service and redeploy acoustic receivers in the Tortugas Ecological Reserve. The network of receivers is used to detect acoustically tagged fish and was instrumental in documenting the return of a historic mutton snapper spawning group. Credit: NOAA

Scientists from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and partner agencies recently completed a nine-day research expedition between Key West and the Dry Tortugas aboard the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster. During the research cruise, researchers mapped more than 266 miles of sea floor with multibeam sonar and recorded fish spawning behavior in the sanctuary’s Tortugas Ecological Reserve.

The mission further documented the return of a historic aggregation of spawning mutton snapper inside the reserve, which scientists attribute to the protection afforded by the reserve as well as changes to fishery regulations. Mutton snapper has been the target of a popular fishery in the Florida Keys since the early 1900s and have historically aggregated in parts of the Tortugas for spawning purposes. By the late 1990s, fishery surveys suggested that such mass spawning aggregations in the Tortugas had all but ceased due to overfishing.

Since the establishment of the Tortugas Ecological Reserve in 2001, the numbers of mutton snapper observed in the area of the reserve have slowly increased annually. In summer 2009, for the first time since their surveys began, scientists from the NOAA Fisheries Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission observed thousands of individual mutton snapper spawning over two consecutive months. It was the first mutton snapper spawning captured on record in Florida.

This summer, scientists aboard the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster again observed mutton snapper displaying spawning behaviors, as well as cubera snapper and ocean triggerfish inside the Tortugas Ecological Reserve. Data gathered during the 2012 expedition will support future science and management decisions, including greater emphasis on protection of fish spawning aggregations—a recurring theme in the sanctuary’s recent public scoping period for its marine zoning and regulatory review.

The expedition included researchers from NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the College of Charleston, and a seventh-grade science teacher participating in NOAA’s Teacher at Sea Program.



The Tortugas Ecological Reserve is located in the sanctuary’s Dry Tortugas region, approximately 70 miles west of Key West. In 2001, the sanctuary designated the 151-square nautical mile reserve to protect habitat and biodiversity, allowing the area to evolve naturally with minimal human influences. Fishing and anchoring are prohibited throughout the reserve, and boating and diving are prohibited in the reserve's southern section without a permit.

NOAA’s Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary protects 2,900 square nautical miles of critical marine habitat, including coral reef, hard bottom, sea grass meadow, mangrove communities, and sand flats. NOAA and the state of Florida manage the sanctuary.