Part 3 of a three-part series on the Tortugas Ecological Reserve, NOAA Ocean Science Blogger is pleased to sit down with Mr. Sean Morton, Superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. As Superintendent, Sean is responsible for all aspects of management, operations, and policy implementation. We’re pleased he could take a few moments to talk with us about the role of science for decision-making within a sanctuary and the dynamic role research plays for ongoing management of the FKNMS.
This series also includes Part 1 featuring an overview interview with NCCOS‘ Chris Jeffrey and Part 2 featuring ONMS’ Bob Leeworthy about socioeconomic research on this project. The NOAA announcement is available online.
Guest Blogger Biography: Sean Morton has been the Superintendent of NOAA’s Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary since February 2009. Prior to his current position, Sean held several positions in NOAA including Management Plan Coordinator for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Program Analyst in the Office of the Director for National Marine Sanctuaries in Silver Spring, Maryland. He has also worked in NOAA’s Program Coordination Office and as the Deputy Associate Director for Ocean and Coastal Policy at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. From 1993 to 2001, Sean was a planner for the Santa Barbara County Planning and Development Department working on long-term coastal planning studies and offshore oil and gas permit review and compliance. Sean holds as Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics and Environmental Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara and a Masters in Public Administration from American University in Washington DC.
Thank you for speaking with our readers, Mr. Morton
Pleasure to be here.
Here at NOAA, there are many offices focusing on a variety of ocean science. Why do you feel NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and NOAA’s National Center for Coastal Ocean Science are good partners for projects like this?
Sanctuary sites conduct their own scientific research, but also rely on research from other parts of NOAA, including the NCCOS and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary manages the entire marine ecosystem, including numerous habitat types like seagrass beds, bank systems and coral reefs. Partnering with NCCOS and other science agencies allows us to leverage the scientific specialties of their researchers, that when integrated with our research help tell a complete story of ecosystem health.
What do you see as the role of research as it relates to management of a Sanctuary such as the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary?
Research is an absolute necessity for effective management, and here at Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary sound science informs all of our management decisions. The Florida Keys are one of the most widely studied marine areas in the world, and through long-term monitoring efforts like our Water Quality Protection Program we are able to document changes in environmental conditions and detect positive trends resulting from our management decisions.
Why is this report important to NOAA and the Sanctuary stakeholders and why do you feel NOAA’s NCCOS was a good fit for partnering with the NOAA’s ONMS for this effort?
It’s one thing to say “we think things are improving” and it’s a totally different thing to say “we know things are improving and we have the research to prove it.” Research reports such as this show our stakeholders that our decisions were wise, and that marine conservation and strong economies can coexist.
In your opinion, what do you find are the most compelling points of this report as a regional stakeholder?
Prior to the Tortugas Ecological Reserve designation, some stakeholders in the fishing communities were apprehensive of how the reserve might affect their business. This report shows that those fears were not realized; the reserve didn’t hurt their fishing businesses as they originally feared. There was no economic loss to commercial or recreational fishers, in fact in some instances like the reef fish fishery, the catches of those commercial fishers went up. Through research shared in in reports like this one, we also know that stakeholders outside the Florida Keys are also benefiting from the Tortugas Ecological Reserve, since fish larvae spawned there are carried through ocean currents and “seed” Florida Keys waters, and the east and west coasts of Florida, with fish.
I understand this initial project spurred additional efforts that have since continued in the region. Can you tell readers a bit more about those?
By protecting Riley’s Hump with in the Tortugas Ecological Reserve, researchers have seen the reoccurrence of a mutton snapper spawning aggregation they had previously thought to have been wiped out by fishing. Emerging research has documented other spawning aggregation sites just outside the reserve’s boundaries which aren’t as well-protected. This research and the documented successes of Sanctuary management efforts have led to a call by many members of the public, scientific community and fishermen to duplicate the success achieved in the TER in other areas, and to protect additional spawning aggregations and other species.
How does the sanctuary plan to use the data from this report to inform decision-making within the sanctuary?
This research will help inform a review of sanctuary zones and regulations. Currently, our Sanctuary Advisory Council, along with extensive involvement from the public, is evaluating whether existing management strategies, including regulations and marine zones, are sufficient for addressing threats to marine resources, and if new or expanded protection strategies are warranted to better address these threats. The “Condition Report 2011 of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary,” complemented by research reports such as this and stakeholder input, helped determine the goals and objectives, and priorities, of this review.
How has this study shaped future scientific research in the sanctuary? What do you consider to be future research needs of the sanctuary?
Studies like this demonstrate the need for both long-term monitoring of the ecosystem as well as the socioeconomic landscape. Our partners at Nova Southeastern University conduct annual rapid ecological assessments of habitat types and invertebrates throughout the Keys to provide a long-term picture of ecosystem health, both inside and outside of our marine zones. We support this important work through vessels, staff and trained science divers. Additional research with partners at NOAA Fisheries, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and University of Miami examines the population dynamics of reef fish inside and outside our Tortugas Ecological Reserve, and through acoustic telemetry studies their movements between those areas. Future research should continue to answer questions about management effectiveness in protecting marine ecosystems as well the economic livelihood of those than live in and enjoy the Florida Keys.
Where can readers learn more about the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary?
Readers can visit our website, or become our fan on Facebook. If you happen to visit Key West, stop by the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center and learn about the wonders of the our natural and cultural resources.