Ecological Reserves

A closeup of a coral reef with a diver's silhouette in the background
A primary goal of ecological reserves, such as Tortugas Ecological Reserve pictured here, is to protect habitats to promote long-term sustainability. Photo: Greg McFall/NOAA

Ecological reserves (ERs) are the largest of the sanctuary zones and protect an entire range of marine habitats found in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. These contiguous, diverse habitats help protect natural spawning, nursery, and permanent-residence areas needed for sustainable populations of fish and other marine life.

There are currently two ERs in the sanctuary, the Western Sambo Ecological Reserve and the Tortugas Ecological Reserve, which together protect nearly 160 square nautical miles. The Tortugas Ecological Reserve is separated into two parts, Tortugas South and Tortugas North.

Regulations for ERs limit consumptive activities while continuing to allow activities that do not threaten resource protection.

In addition to activities prohibited by sanctuary-wide regulations, the following activities are prohibited in Ecological Reserves:

  • Discharging any matter except cooling water or engine exhaust
  • Fishing by any means; removing, harvesting, or possessing any marine life
  • Touching or standing on living or dead coral
  • Anchoring on living or dead coral, or any attached organism
  • Anchoring when a mooring buoy is available

Additional regulation for the Tortugas Ecological Reserve South:

  • Vessels may only enter if they remain in continuous transit with fishing gear stowed (diving and snorkeling are prohibited)

Additional regulations for the Tortugas Ecological Reserve North:

  • Access permit required to stop or use a mooring buoy
  • Anchoring is prohibited
  • Mooring by vessel(s) more than 100 feet in total or combined length overall is prohibited
  • Access permit is not required if the vessel remains in continuous transit with fishing gear stowed

A summary of all sanctuary regulations is available online. For the full text of sanctuary regulations, see 15 CFR 922 Subpart P.