Vessel Use Patterns in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

By Casey Butler, Maria Cooksey, Gabrielle Renchen and Emily Hutchinson

The Keys Fisheries Research program took to the skies in partnership with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (hereafter Sanctuary) management team to conduct an aerial survey of vessel use in the Sanctuary. Within the boundaries of the Sanctuary lie nationally significant marine resources, including hundreds of uninhabited Keys, the world’s third largest barrier reef, hard-bottom habitat, seagrass beds, mangrove trees, and more than 6,000 species of marine life. The Florida Keys are home for ~79,000 year-round residents and provide a destination for ~5 million visitors annually. Over the last few decades the number of registered vessels has increased, but the activities of these boaters and how their use of Sanctuary resources have changed over time is not well known. Understanding the patterns of boating activity in the Sanctuary is vital to evaluating the sustainable use of the valuable marine resources of the Sanctuary.

Whale Harbor Sandbar is the most popular sandbar in the Keys (331 boats were observed on the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend 2016).

FWRI scientists flew in small planes over the breathtaking waters of the Keys and recorded the type, location, and activity of every boat, personal water craft, kayak, paddleboard, etc. Over the course of 29 flights in 2016, we counted 52,107 boats. The number of boats peaked at nearly 5,000 during the opening days of lobster season and summer holidays. On average, 19% of boats were involved in fishing, 19% were involved in diving, 13% were anchored (with no visible activity), and 9% of boats were at sandbars. Many of the boats we observed (29%) were in transit at the time; however, these boats likely participated in other activities throughout the day. In addition to diving and fishing, other watersports (e.g., kayaking, paddle boarding, jet skiing) and partying at sandbars were popular among the Sanctuary’s visitors and reflect alternative ways in which people enjoy Florida Keys waters. Our research team conducted a similar aerial survey in 1992, and the comparison of vessel use data between 1992 and 2016 shows that there has been a major increase (~400%) in the popularity of watersports (e.g., kayaking, paddle boarding, jet skiing) and partying at sandbars.

The 1992 aerial survey took place prior to the establishment of the Sanctuary Preservation Areas (Figure 1, SPAs). Establishment of the SPAs in 1997 limited consumptive activities within these areas and was intended to reduce conflicts between fishermen and divers. Because these areas were open to fishing during the 1992 aerial survey – including hook-and-line, recreational lobstering and commercial fishing, this allows us to examine how SPA implementation affected stakeholder activity. Currently, we are evaluating changes in dive and fishing boat spatial distributions after the SPAs were established.

Sombrero Reef, a Sanctuary Preservation Area (SPA) off of Marathon hosts many divers and snorkelers throughout the year.

Besides providing an outstanding office view for our scientists, this project provided essential information to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary managers regarding vessel use in the Sanctuary and how that use has changed over time, which should aid in future management decisions regarding Sanctuary resources.

Watch our video for a glimpse of the scenery from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary aerial survey project:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TxQH3zRdYzk