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Research Natural Area Regs Go Into Effect

Dry Tortugas National Park

National Park News

Special regulations for Dry Tortugas National Park, published in the Federal Register last December 19th, will go into effect today. Among other things, the regulations establish a research natural area (RNA) that adds a new layer of protection for the marine resources of the park by prohibiting fishing and anchoring.

“The RNA complements the adjacent Tortugas Ecological Reserve in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, creating the largest no-take marine reserve in the continental United States,” said superintendent Kimball.  “The plan for protecting this area of the park was developed with broad public participation and the direct involvement of the state of Florida, the sanctuary, fishing organizations, and other interest groups; we will be implementing the RNA with an emphasis on education and cooperation with partner agencies, local communities, user groups, and individual users as we work to place boundary and mooring buoys in the RNA.”

The RNA is a 46-square-mile, no-take/no-anchor ecological preserve that provides a sanctuary for species affected by fishing and loss of habitat. This area is located in the northwest portion of the park (see map above). Generally, it is the area within the park boundary that is enclosed by connecting with straight lines the coordinate 82:51:00W and 24:36:00N with 82:58:00W and 24:36:00N, and with 82:51:00W and 24:43:32N.  Not included is the area within one nautical mile of the Fort Jefferson harbor light (82:52:19.02W and 24:37:41.34N) and the central portion of Loggerhead Key.  Kimball emphasizes that 54 percent of the park remains open to fishing.

Although the new regulations prohibit anchoring within the RNA, boaters will be allowed to anchor during daylight hours on sand bottoms until the mooring buoys are in place.  Overnight anchoring can only occur on sand bottoms within one nautical mile of the harbor light located at the fort.  Additional information on the new regulations can be found on the park’s website, www.nps.gov/drto .

This RNA provides opportunities for snorkelers, divers, boaters, and researchers to enjoy a beautiful marine environment while protecting important coral reef habitat.  Park managers believe that the RNA will improve the visitor experience for the increasing numbers of visitors who now travel to this remote off-shore national park, located about 70 miles west of Key West, Florida.

Under the new plan, Dry Tortugas National Park will be divided into four zones that offer a variety of primary uses: 

  • The historic preservation zone (where Ft. Jefferson is located) is the focus of the greatest visitor activities including guided tours, historical interpretation, bird watching, photography, picnicking, boating, snorkeling, scuba diving and recreational fishing.
  • The natural/cultural zone, east and south of the RNA, will now be managed to improve natural resource quality and allow visitors to experience remoteness and solitude with opportunities for swimming, scuba diving, recreational fishing and viewing wildlife.  Visitors can enjoy natural resources with almost no facilities or services and experience the “vast expanse of sea and sky” characteristic of this remote national park.
  • The research natural area zone allows for the protection of outstanding marine and terrestrial habitats, spawning fish species, and pristine coral reefs.  The use of anchors will not be allowed, and scientific research and other educational activities consistent with the management of this zone will require advance permits from the National Park Service.  No fishing is allowed in research natural areas in order to protect and build up important fish nursery and spawning areas that will produce greater abundance and diversity of fish in other important recreational and commercial fisheries.  This also meets the park’s legislative mandate “to protect a pristine sub-tropical marine ecosystem and unique and outstanding cultural resources.”  Wildlife viewing, snorkeling, diving, boating, and sightseeing can be enjoyed by private boaters or by  visitors utilizing the services of commercial tour guides.
  • Special protection zones are being established in areas requiring protection from human impact, such as sea turtle and bird nesting areas, shallow or sensitive corals and significant submerged cultural resources.  Boundaries of the special protection zones can be adjusted within the season to protect areas at certain critical periods of the year.

“Visitation to the Dry Tortugas has quadrupled since 1994,” notes Kimball. “The RNA allows for a better visitor experience while protecting the unique natural treasures above and below the sea.  Future generations will be able to experience the remoteness, tranquility, and the abundance and diversity of coral and marine and bird species that were once common in this part of America but are found in only a few very special places today.” 

“The park’s goal for the future of the South Florida resources is that recreational and commercial fishermen will see more and bigger fish, more conch, and more lobster in Florida Bay, the Straits of Florida, and beyond as a result of the critical spawning and nursery areas that we are protecting in the park.”



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