Historic Timeline

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) was established amidst concerns about the Florida Keys ecosystem as a whole. Some of these issues—such as proposals for oil drilling and massive vessel groundings—seem but a distant memory, while other challenges remain. The timeline below provides a glimpse at key events and milestones in our history. More details can be found in our accomplishments and 2011 Condition Report.


Historical Setting and Events Leading up to Designation

1955. Conservation writer Rachel Carson publishes The Edge of the Sea describing the marine biology of America’s unique coastal regions, dedicating an in-depth section to the Florida Keys’ marine ecosystem, which she calls America’s “only coral coast.”

1957. Conservationists meet in the Everglades to discuss the demise of coral reef resources for a conference that would spark discussion about creating an underwater park.

1959. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is designated, becoming the first undersea park in the United States. Its original boundary extends to a depth of 60’ on the Atlantic side from Carysfort Reef to Molasses Reef encompassing the coral reef tract.

1972. Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act of 1972 is signed into law by President Nixon. Today, the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries serves as the trustee for a network of underwater parks encompassing more than 170,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters from Washington state to the Florida Keys, and from Lake Huron to American Samoa.

December 18, 1975. Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary becomes the second national marine sanctuary in the system, protecting 103 square nautical miles of coral reef habitat off of Pennekamp State Park, from Carysfort Lighthouse to Molasses Reef.

Throughout the 1980s. A series of declines in the Florida Keys’ coral reef ecosystem occur, including algal blooms in Florida Bay, sponge die-offs, losses in living coral cover, and seagrass die-offs. A die-off of reef fish along the outer reefs of the Keys is observed. Shrimp harvests in the Tortugas Grounds decline to record lows.

January 16, 1981. Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary is designated, protecting 5.32 square nautical miles of spur and groove coral reef located offshore of Big Pine Key. Looe Key was named for the wreck of the British frigate H.M.S. Looe, which ran aground on the reef on February 5, 1744.

1981. First mooring buoys are installed in Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary as a means to reduce anchor damage to sensitive marine habitats, especially coral formations, seagrass beds, and submerged archaeological resources.

January 1983. A disease outbreak among Diadema antillarum (long-spined sea urchins) begins near the Panama Canal, causing widespread, rapid mass mortality event throughout the Caribbean over the next two years.

Summer 1983. Periods of low wind and high air temperature contribute to increased water temperatures and massive coral bleaching is documented along the outer reef tract of the Lower Keys.

August 4, 1984. The M/V Wellwood runs aground on Molasses Reef within Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary.

June 1987. Department of the Interior releases a five-year plan to open Florida’s coastal areas to oil and gas development with lease sales starting in late 1988.

July 1987. Doldrum-like weather conditions lead to massive bleaching on outer reefs throughout the Florida Keys, and later secondary impacts such as coral disease are observed.

Fall 1987. Fishing guides report areas of dead seagrass in western Florida Bay. A seagrass die-off in Florida Bay begins as dense stands of turtle grass, Thalassia testudinum, experience rapid mortality.

April 28, 1988. Abandoned Shipwreck Act is signed into law, giving the U.S. Government title to abandoned shipwrecks within certain categories. This enables federal protection of historic shipwrecks.

November 7, 1988. Congress reauthorizes the National Marine Sanctuaries Act (P.L. 100-627) naming study areas for possible additional sanctuaries, including Alligator Reef, Sombrero Reef and American Shoal in the Florida Keys.

March 24, 1989. The Exxon Valdez oil tanker runs aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska garnering international attention for the potential of major tanker and ship groundings while killing more than 250,000 birds and covering over 1,300 square miles of ocean with oil.

October 25, 1989. M/V Alec Owen Maitland runs aground within Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary.

October 30, 1989. M/V Mavro Vetranic runs aground at Pulaski Shoal in the Dry Tortugas.

November 11, 1989. M/V Elpis runs aground in Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary.

October 24, 1989. Representative Dante Fascell introduces Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Protection Act, which is sponsored in the Senate by Senator Bob Graham. The Act:

  • Designates a specified area in Florida as the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary under the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act of 1972.
  • Prohibits, with specified exceptions, the operation of a tank vessel or a vessel greater than 50 meters in length in a certain Area to Be Avoided (ATBA).
  • Provides that no leasing, exploration, development, or production of minerals or hydrocarbons shall be permitted within the Sanctuary.
  • Requires the Secretary of Commerce to develop a comprehensive management plan and implementing regulations.
  • Terminates all congressionally mandated studies of existing areas in the Florida Keys for designation as National Marine Sanctuaries.
  • Directs the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Governor of Florida to develop a comprehensive water quality protection program for the Sanctuary. Excludes such program from the comprehensive management plan if it does not meet the purpose for which the Sanctuary is designated or is otherwise inconsistent or incompatible with it.
  • Requires the Secretary to establish an Advisory Council to assist with the comprehensive management plan.

The Early Years of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

November 16, 1990. George H.W. Bush signs the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Protection Act (P.L. 101-605) into law, forming a new sanctuary in the Florida Keys.

1992. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state of Florida implement the Water Quality Protection Program and establish a Water Quality Protection Program Steering Committee, Technical Advisory Committee, and Florida Keys Liaison Office.

October 1, 1993. Submerged Resource Inventory Team, a group of volunteers working with the National Marine Sanctuary Program, begins assessing cultural resources in the Florida Keys, eventually documenting 660 sites over twelve years. The project results in a five volume inventory titled "Underwater Resources of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Northeast Region."

June to September 1995. NOAA begins restoration activities for the injury sites from the M/V Elpis and M/V Maitland groundings by rebuilding coral structures and later transplanting corals, sponges and sea fans. The U.S. Department of Commerce later awards the NOAA-led team of scientists a Bronze Medal for their unprecedented reef habitat restoration at these sites.

Summer 1995. Water Quality Protection Program (WQPP) monitoring of water quality, coral reefs, and seagrasses begins. Coral is monitored annually at fixed sites by the Coral Reef Evaluation and Monitoring Project (CREMP) program, run by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, who also enters into an agreement to manage data for the WQPP. Seagrass monitoring and water quality monitoring are conducted through cooperative agreements with Florida International University.

1995-96. NOAA conducts a comprehensive, baseline socioeconomic assessment of recreation and tourism in the Florida Keys, which is used to inform the development of the FKNMS Management Plan. In addition, a study on the knowledge, attitudes and perceptions of FKNMS management strategies and regulations for various user groups is conducted.

1996. Congress establishes the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force to develop a plan to reverse hydrologic changes that are having unintended consequences on Everglades National Park and adjacent ecosystems, including the Florida Keys. Re-establishing freshwater flows from the South Florida mainland to Florida Bay is important for restoring a healthy ecological balance.

July 1, 1997. Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Regulations (15 CFR 922) become effective, establishing the nation’s first comprehensive network of marine zones and implementing the new management plan. The five types of zones have varying levels of protection to help balance continued activities with protection of ecologically sensitive resources.

August 1997 to October 1998. A strong El Niño event causes mass bleaching throughout the Keys’ inshore and offshore reefs and, accompanied in 1998 with a coral disease outbreak, in what would long be considered the worst coral bleaching event on record. NOAA, Mote Marine Lab, and the EPA begin assessments of coral disease along the Florida reef tract.

June 1998. NOAA enters into a Programmatic Agreement with the State of Florida, Advisory Council, and Historic Preservation for historical resource management in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

October 1998. FKNMS begins the Tortugas 2000 public process to consider potential protections for the Tortugas region.

1999. The state of Florida and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency create a no discharge zone (NDZ) for the City of Key West waters out to 600 feet from shore, prohibiting discharge of treated or untreated sewage from vessels.

July 1999. The sanctuary’s Shipwreck Trail is launched as a result of cooperative efforts on the part of NOAA's National Marine Sanctuaries Program, federal and state agencies, nonprofits, local communities and businesses.

2000. The Mini-312 program is started as a collaborative effort among various divisions of NOAA to quantitatively assess the damages made by relatively small boat groundings in support of complete, legally defensible damage claims that can include restoration plans.

January 17, 2001. Final regulations are published to expand the sanctuary’s boundary with the creation of the Tortugas Ecological Reserve, a non-contiguous zone of 151 square nautical miles. The new reserve was the largest fully-protected marine reserve in the United States at the time.

June 2002. At the recommendation of the Water Quality Protection Program and request of the Florida governor, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state of Florida use authorities in the Clean Water Act to create a no-discharge zone (NDZ) for state waters within the sanctuary.

November 2002. FKNMS releases a Comprehensive Science Plan, completing the process that began in December 2000 to assess and improve sanctuary science. The plan identifies management objectives and associated monitoring and research needs of the sanctuary in a systematic and prioritized fashion. The plan is reviewed and approved by the Technical Advisory Committee of the Water Quality Protection Program.

December 1, 2002. A Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA) designation, conferred by United Nations International Maritime Organization, becomes effective, ensuring the Area to Be Avoided will be on nautical charts worldwide. The designation, which was announced in November 13, 2002 by the Secretary of Commerce, was spearheaded by NOAA.

March 2003. NOAA staff lead a project to restore seagrass beds using a new method that utilizes bird stakes to attract roosting cormorants and seabirds to the restoration site. Nutrients from the birds’ droppings provide a natural fertilizer that enhances the growth of shoal grass, a seagrass that is an early colonizer of barren areas. This enhances the speed of recovery and encourages turtle grass and manatee grass to recolonize areas of seagrass that have been injured by boat groundings.

2003. Sanctuary Coral Nursery Program is developed in response to repairs by the U.S. Navy at Key West Truman Mole Pier. The program developed protocols for rescuing and transplanting corals from construction sites.

June 25, 2004. The Little Venice Sewage Treatment Plan comes online as the result of a six year project to implement centralized wastewater systems in unincorporated Monroe County. The project, designed to reduce nutrient and bacteria entering the nearshore waters of the sanctuary, received $4.326 million in grant money from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in addition to state, local, and private funds.

The Sanctuary Today: Continuously Improving Science and Tools for Protection

June 2005. Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Mote Marine Laboratory launch a new BleachWatch program that trains volunteers to report bleaching which is then compiled and disseminated to scientists and resource managers. Modeled after a similar program at Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the program will enable scientists to monitor and better understand bleaching events.

April 11, 2006. NOAA christens a new high-speed, 57-foot catamaran that will be used for law enforcement. The NOAA vessel Peter Gladding is named after a commercial fisherman who helped lead the process which developed the Tortugas Ecological Reserve.

May 9, 2006. Two species of branched, reef-building Acropora corals (elkhorn and staghorn) become first coral species listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

January 2007. The Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, a free public visitor’s center for the sanctuary, opens its doors on the Truman Waterfront in Key West.

December 2007. Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Revised Management Plan is released completing the first review of the FKNMS Management Plan.

2007. NOAA conducts a follow-up socioeconomic study to the 1995-96 baseline report on recreation and tourism in the Florida Keys and Key West to assess changes in the region’s ocean-based economy, as well as knowledge, attitudes, and perceptions of residents of and visitors to the Florida Keys.

2008. Four-day workshop “Responding to Climate Change” brings together coral reef experts and marine park managers from the Caribbean, Central and South America, and Florida to develop tools to better prepare for and respond to climate change impact. The project would later win the Department of Commerce’s prestigious Silver Medal Honor Award.

June 2008. NOAA participates in a workshop to develop protocols and partnerships for an early detection and rapid response program for non-native marine fish introductions in south Florida. The sanctuary partners with NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, U.S. Geological Survey, Reef Environmental Education Foundation, and Mote Marine Lab to test and further refine protocols.

January 2009. The first lionfish is officially recorded in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary at Benwood Ledge off of Key Largo prompting an aggressive awareness campaign encouraging the public to report and remove lionfish.

November 3, 2009. FKNMS launches the Blue Star program to promote low impact practices through partnerships with charter dive and snorkel operators.

2009. NOAA awards fund to The Nature Conservancy and its partners using funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to support restoration of the threatened staghorn coral, Acropora cervicornis, by growing coral in nurseries on the seafloor and transplanting them to depleted reef sites.

April 20, 2010. The Deepwater Horizon oil rig explodes, spilling oil into the northern Gulf of Mexico and triggering concerns that the Loop Current may carry oil to the Florida Keys. Sanctuary staff and Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Technique ("SCAT") teams monitor shorelines in the Keys for tarballs.

September-November 2010. FKNMS partners with REEF to host the first series of derbies to help eradicate invasive lionfish, which represent a growing threat to the Florida Keys ecosystem.

December 2010. Building on actions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2002 to create a no-discharge zone in state waters, NOAA prohibits all discharges of treated and untreated sewage throughout Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

October 21, 2011. The sanctuary releases the 2011 Condition Report—the first comprehensive assessment of the status of resources it has been charged with protecting. This initiates the Sanctuary Advisory Council’s request to conduct a comprehensive review of the sanctuary’s marine zones, boundaries, and regulations.

April 2012. NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service jointly publish a Notice of Intent to review Florida Keys’ management plans, zones, and boundaries.

November 20, 2012. NOAA announces that it has identified “Mike’s wreck” as the British steamship Hannah M. Bell.

October 2014. The sanctuary enters into a $1.3 million partnership with Florida International University to support operations, outreach, research and administration.

October 2014. The SAC completes their workplan for reviewing topics raised in public scoping and requests that NOAA analyze a range of ideas for how to revise its zones, boundaries, and management plan in a draft environmental impact assessment.