Captain Michael Barber
Captain Michael Barber

Let’s all backup a minute here and inventory what we know or suspect is causing the degradation of the coral reefs.  There are the various natural phenomena of hurricanes, El Nino’s and diseases.  Hurricanes are a physical pounding of the shallow-water reefs.   El Nino events cause temperature increases due to abnormal rainfall, the coral expels algae and this causes coral bleaching. It takes 10 to 15 years for the coral to naturally rebound from a bleaching event.  Until the 1980s, bleaching events only happen once every 25 to 30 years.  As of 2010, bleaching events are occurring once every 6 years on average.  Diseases are part of the natural cycle of life and are often fatal such as the current epidemic of Stoney Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD).  The only thing that can be done about these items is to do more research.

However, we can immediately work on the human activities that are exacerbating the death of the reefs.  Human activities such as burning fossil fuels, deforestation and cement production put more than 40 billion metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere annually.  The atmosphere is currently at 408 ppm CO2.  If we reach 450 ppm, this will raise the ocean temperature 2° C and all the world’s coral will die from the acidified water.

Coastal development equates to more erosion and run-off of everything from sewage, to fertilizers, to calcium from pea-rock and more.  All these things increase the water turbidity and reduce the available sunlight needed for healthy coral.

Poor practices while visiting our reefs are also killing them.  Anchors, fuel/oil leaks and trash are readily found throughout the system.  Overfishing disrupts the complex symbiotic balance of the reefs.  Poorly used “catch and release” practices kill most fish.   Careless diving techniques and souvenir taking all add to the problem.  The reefs of the 1960s are gone.  We have overfished, overused, overpopulated, and on and on.


Capt’n Mike has an undergraduate degree in Marine Technology and 50 years of sailing the oceans of the world.  Currently, he visits the Florida Keys reefs conducting eco tours.


So, what can we do?

NOAA has a blueprint that is currently open for public input.  In short, it includes expanding the sanctuary boundary from 3,800 square miles to 4,541 square miles, increasing the current 57 zones to 98 zones and, placing further restrictions on access and activities.  They have introduced changes to four regulations and advocate four new regulations.  I don’t fault their efforts. My problem is in the short-sightedness of it all.

There is a lot of talk about access restrictions to some of the reefs and the whole “Blue Star” certified thing.  If this comes to pass, every captain in the keys will be certified in very short order and back business as usual.   Currently, the Blue Star website only lists 14 members.

If a reef is put off-limits it will have no effect on the number of tourists coming to the keys.  There will be fewer reefs to visit thereby putting even more pressure on the others.  We need to restrict overall access to the reef and fishing areas and develop different attractions of interest.

Any restrictions on the reef must have three accompanying facets.  First, it must have funding and resources for planting new coral colonies.  Without replanting many of the reefs will not come back on their own even if people are not allowed.  Second, law enforcement must be greatly enhanced to enforce serious penalties.  And third, there must be a massive and sustained effort to educate the entire country on the importance of saving the reefs and ocean.  If this topic falls out of sight for the public, funding and responsible legislation will disappear. 

I understand that all this is going to negatively impact the livelihood of many citizens. We have been here before with the sponge, the conch and others. It’s painful, but the human impact on the reefs must be reduced if for no other reason than to let scientists focus on understanding the things that we don’t yet have a way to influence.

Doing nothing more means that the reefs are dead in about thirty years which is another nail in the oceans coffin.

Captain Mike Barber


The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council meeting will take place Tuesday, Dec. 10 at 1 p.m. at the Islander Resort, 82100 Overseas Hwy, Islamorada. Members will discuss NOAA’s proposed changes to the sanctuary’s boundaries, marine zones, regulations and management plan. Public oral and written comment on the Restoration Blueprint will be accepted at the meeting. Meetings are streamed live on YouTube.

The Restoration Blueprint is available at NOAA is taking public comment on the proposals through Jan. 31, 2020. Comments may be submitted online at (docket number NOAA-NOS-2019-0094).

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