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Expanding The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

BoatUS supports the nearly 1,000-square-mile expansion and revised management plan for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Aerial view of boats moored at Looe Key inside the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

Boats on moorings at Looe Key inside the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. (Photo: NOAA/Shawn Verne)

Maintaining or expanding recreational boating access to our 13 national marine sanctuaries is always Priority No. 1 for BoatUS any time the federal government reviews regulations within a sanctuary. With its close proximity to the population centers of southern Florida (and nearly 1 million boaters in the state), the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is one of the most accessible marine sanctuaries in the nation.


The Florida Keys ­National Marine Sanctuary contains more than 6,000 species of marine life, and the only coral reef system in the continental United States (Florida's Coral Reef).

The culmination of a multistep process that began in 2011, and included several rounds of public comment, came in the form of a "Restoration Blueprint" that served as the revised management plan for the Keys sanctuary. David Kennedy, manager of our BoatUS Government Affairs department, says most pleasure boaters should be able to adjust to the changes.

"We'll have to see just how the adjusted regulations play out in the real world, but we think NOAA has made an effort to protect recreational angling — and no responsible boater wants to anchor on a reef," Kennedy says, noting the blanket ban on anchoring in sanctuary preservation areas, restoration areas, conservation areas (with one exception), and some wildlife-management areas.

Key Revisions For Boaters And Anglers

  • Marine Zones: NOAA is proposing to expand several protected areas and revise the restriction for several others to provide protection to sensitive habitats and species that have experienced declines or to protect restoration activities. Several new zone types are included to promote habitat restoration. Sanctuary preservation areas (SPAs) would no longer allow capture of baitfish under a permit, and exceptions for catch-and-release fishing by trolling in four SPAs would be eliminated. Anchoring in all SPAs would be prohibited; moorings would be required. Placement of marker and mooring buoys would be updated for new or altered marine zones.
  • Angling: Four sanctuary preservation areas that previously allowed catch-and-release fishing would no longer allow this activity under the proposed rule — Conch Reef, Alligator Reef, Sombrero Key, and Sand Key. It has also ended the practice of issuing bait fishing permits. NOAA says this change was made specifically in reaction to input from recreational anglers and commercial fishermen.
  • Derelict Vessels: Any grounding incident must be reported, and a grounded vessel must be removed within 72 hours of incident under the new rules. The change is an effort to nip in the bud a potential derelict vessel. Boats deemed "at-risk" are prohibited from anchoring or mooring. Skippers can be fined for deserting a vessel or leaving harmful matter aboard a grounded or deserted vessel.
  • Fish Feeding: Feeding and attracting fish (including sharks) from vessels or while diving is illegal, but traditional chumming for fishing remains permitted. This change aligns with state rules of Florida, a management partner with the federal agency because approximately 60% of the protected area falls in state waters.
  • Large Vessels: Vessels greater than 65 feet would be required to use designated large vessel moorings.

The big change substantially increases the size of the Keys sanctuary by 992 square miles, from 3,803 to 4,795. NOAA says the expansion is based on "ecological connectivity," such as coral reef systems, and would better align the geographic boundary with the "area to be avoided" regulatory boundary (for large commercial vessels), most notably in the northernmost area of the sanctuary. The expansion will also close a gap in the Tortugas Region, and add Pulley Ridge Wildlife Management Area, in the Gulf of Mexico, as a distinct unit apart from the sanctuary boundary. NOAA says a comprehensive management approach is better suited to address an array of issues including water quality and the degradation of the diverse coral reef ecosystem.

This is the first comprehensive review of Keys Marine Sanctuary's regulations and marine zoning approach since 1997. The world has changed since then, and today, pressures from increased vessel traffic, coral disease, marine debris, commercial and recreational fishing, and disturbances to wildlife are taking their toll on the region. Factors such as climate change, sea level rise, and ocean acidification are large-scale issues that also affect sanctuary resources, according to NOAA.


The shoreward boundary of the sanctuary is the mean high-water mark, essentially meaning that once you set foot in Florida Keys waters, you have entered the sanctuary.

Much has been learned over the last 25 years about what management tools work and where improvements can be made. The hope is the updated regulations and management practices will reduce impacts of local and regional stressors and increase the resilience of the ecosystem.

"As the boaters' advocate, BoatUS has a long track record of engaging regulators regarding the issues that matter to boaters," Kennedy says. "Access to our marine sanctuaries is imperative to our community, industry, and way of life that the Florida Keys remain healthy for generations to come."

Explore More

NOAA has developed a mobile app that provides regulatory information along with photos, descriptions, and coordinates for every zone within every sanctuary.

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Rich Armstrong

Senior Editor, BoatUS Magazine

A journalist by training, BoatUS Magazine Senior Editor Rich Armstrong has worked in TV news, and at several newspapers, then spent 18 years as a top editor at other boating publications. He’s built a stellar reputation in the marine industry as one of the most thorough reporters in our business. At BoatUS Magazine, Rich handles everything from boat and product innovation and late-breaking news, to compelling feature stories, boat reviews, and features on people and places. The New Jersey shore and lakes of lower New York defined Rich's childhood. But when he bought a 21-foot Four Winns deck boat and introduced his young family to the Connecticut River, his love for the world of boats flourished from there.