Stories of Hope: The Dry Tortugas

the dry tortugas

About 70 miles off the coast of Key West Florida, surrounding a chain of small islands called the Dry Tortugas, are the fertile waters of the only barrier reef in North America. This is an ecosystem that provides refuge to over 280 species of fish. Its lush sea grass meadows are safe feeding areas for hundreds of endangered sea turtles.

Fueled by the nutrient rich ocean currents of the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, the waters of the Tortugas are a dense whirlpool of biodiversity. They include important spawning grounds for commercial fish species. But not very long ago the reefs all along the Florida Keys began to suffer, as increased recreational activities, population pressures and over-fishing overwhelmed the health of the entire marine ecosystem.

That's when scientists began studying fish populations and coral reef habitats. They soon realized that unless something was done quickly, one of the richest and most biologically diverse marine ecosystems in the United States could turn into a barren wasteland. To reverse the trend, in 2001 the Tortugas was declared a 200 square-mile national marine sanctuary.

And that's exactly what happened. Coral reefs and fish populations rebounded and the Tortugas became one of the most successful marine reserves in the world. A key element of that success is a high-speed law enforcement vessel called The Peter Gladding. Its mission is to patrol the waters of the Dry Tortugas, to ensure that the sanctuary remains unharmed. Everyone aboard is heavily armed. The crew is prepared for any situation.

Six hours into his shift, the captain, Joe Scarpa, spots a commercial fishing vessel about a mile off his bow. Radar confirms that it's close to a no-fish zone. While The Peter Gladding picks up speed, the crew goes into action. They know that boats often sneak into the reserve because that's where species, such as shrimp, are more plentiful. As Joe pulls along side the trawler, he orders a boarding.

Federal agent Kenny Blackburn escorts the captain to the bridge. He wants to check the on-board tracking system to find out whether the trawler ever entered the no-fish zone. Kenny asks for the nets to be brought in. He wants see whether they're fitted with turtle excluder devices. Called TEDs they enable captured turtles to escape injury or death.

Protecting a marine reserve is no easy task. To succeed it takes money, lots of it, and highly skilled law enforcement personnel.

This boarding goes smoothly. However, there are times when the crew becomes involved with far more serious infractions. Less than an hour later Joe Scarpa spots a commercial fishing vessel called the Barella. Radar shows that it's not transmitting any tracking information.

When The Peter Gladding pulls alongside, the fishermen seem unconcerned. However, Joe Scarpa is suspicious, he knows that this is a boat with a long history of sanctuary violations. When they board the Barella the crew is prepared for the worst, they remember what happened about a year ago.

Joe Scarpa had boarded the Barella, and the captain admitted that his boat was illegally fishing inside a no-take zone. It's a serious violation, and one that threatens the health of the sanctuary. After checking the hold, about 1500 pounds of yellow tail are discovered and immediately confiscated. The Barella was then escorted back to Key West and fined $25,000. Its fishing license was suspended for 60 days and the captain was ultimately fired.

In contrast to last year's boarding, today's inspection goes smoothly. The problem with the tracking system is resolved and it clearly shows that the Barella was in complete compliance with no-take regulations. "It makes me feel like what I am doing out here is actually working," says Scarpa. "We're educating the fishermen out here by, by enforcing the law and there, they are learning their lessons, they're learning from that, and we're gaining voluntary compliance."

Protecting a marine reserve is no easy task. To succeed it takes money, lots of it, and highly skilled law enforcement personnel. But, clearly, marine reserves and law enforcement can go a long way to improve the health and biodiversity of our oceans.