A designation by the popular Garmin marine navigation system beckons boaters to anchor near a critical in-water coral nursery managed by Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF), with recent visits resulting in extensive damage to the endangered corals cared for in the nursery. 

Years ago, when a live rock aquaculture farm was established between Pickles Reef and Molasses Reef off Tavernier, NOAA labeled the location as an “Obstruction/Fish Haven,” a designation for artificial structures that could impede surface navigation and foul anchors. While Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary’s (FKNMS) Restoration Blueprint proposes to protect coral restoration areas, current law does not prohibit anchoring or fishing in the area, and in recent weeks multiple incidents have occurred.

“On Saturday, Oct. 22, our team arrived on site to find a boat anchored and actively fishing,” said Jessica Levy, CRF director of restoration strategy. “After advising them of the endangered coral species below, the anglers thanked our team for the information and began to pull anchor.”

While pulling anchor, Levy said they dislodged an entire Coral Tree from the ocean floor, a structure that held 60 fragments of critically endangered corals. Impacting corals, even in areas where fishing is allowed, is a violation of sanctuary regulations. 

A second incident on Nov. 1 affected the genetic bank section of the coral nursery where genotypes of corals are housed long-term for use in research. CRF arrived at the nursery to find the aftermath of what appeared to be an anchor drag through multiple coral trees in the gene bank. 

“One tree had half of a branch broken from it and about 100 coral fragments were scattered on the seafloor. Some of those corals died, and all of them lost their genetic tags. The surviving corals are now categorized as unknown genotypes and will be cared for until their genes can be sequenced, a costly and time-consuming endeavor.”

NOAA’s Restoration Blueprint proposes the protection of in-water nurseries along with active restoration sites, but that is a long-term solution. “We are appealing to anglers and boaters to be vigilant about where they drop anchor and fishing line,” said FKNMS Superintendent Sarah Fangman. “Raising baby corals in the open ocean is a critical component of reef restoration to ensure viable fish populations in the future.”

Given the frequency of these recent incidents, the sanctuary is also considering the use of its emergency capacity to create a no-anchoring buffer around the area.

The fish haven designation, which is expressed on maps as “Obstn Fish Haven,” does not indicate whether fishing is allowed or not. Many fish havens were created to support and encourage recreational fishing, while others have been created specifically to protect fish and fishing may be restricted in these areas. Anglers should check with appropriate authorities before dropping a line within a fish haven to learn what restrictions, if any, may apply.

CRF gathered the dislodged fragments but genotypes are now unknown and must be resequenced.
CRF said an anchor dragging through the genetic bank was likely the cause that led to nearly 100 corals dislodged from their trees at the nursery off the shores of Tavnier.
An in-water Coral Tree recently lost an entire branch — most likely the result of an anchor line wrapping around it and breaking it off. CORAL RESTORATION FOUNDATION/Contributed