•  Carrier


Restoration & Preservation
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary 

As climate change and sea level rise threaten the Florida Keys during the 21st century, the question becomes: What is the appropriate use of finite funding for sustaining an environment that is being lost to rising sea levels and how can communities and citizens improve resilience against these challenges?


By CW03 John Mac Dougall, M.SAME, USN (Ret.) 



The management for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) is comprised of a coalition of agencies from federal, state, county and local municipalities working together to mitigate the effects of poor land use development practices during 20th century. Continued global warming and sea level rise threatens to inundate these very same efforts by the end of the 21st century. This raises the question of what is the appropriate use of finite funding for sustaining an environment that is being lost to rising sea levels. 

With varying models of sea level rise and inundation impacts, planning for contingency is currently focusing on projects for reducing the effects of global warming and sea level rise. Emphasis has been placed on reducing greenhouse gas emissions through green construction; alternative energy production and sustainable consumption; and water conservation. Improving water quality protection in the Keys in order to provide a more resilient environment for the world’s fifth largest coral reef has also been a main priority. Florida Keys Canals

As the waters rise upland and threaten terrestrial flora and fauna, new opportunities will avail themselves to establish testing grounds for temperature and pH resilient strains of coral, as well as establishing new areas for sea grass beds and mangrove wetlands. 

Foreseeable opportunities include developing adaptive mitigation and sustainability policies, as well as increasing the marine habitats that support the two main industries: commercial fishing and recreational tourism.


When discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1513, the Florida Keys were not considered habitable or significant. The islands would remain inhabited only by the local Calusa Indians and the pirates that would soon follow the merchant and treasure ships that sailed the trade routes of the New World. That is until the pirates were chased out by the U.S. Navy Pirate Fleet in 1822. The Keys then saw the first settlers arrive from the United States, the Bahamas and Cuba in search of opportunity. Industries cycled with varying degrees of success as nature was able to provide fish, turtles and sharks from the sea, and fruit from farming the higher shores of rock and shallow soils. These industries supported the small settlements with product exported to the eastern seaboard. This would change soon after 1900 with Henry Flagler’s railroad blazing a trail from Miami and bridging the keys to Key West, opening this unique and fragile ecosystem to increasing human encroachment.

The railroad was lost in a devastating hurricane of 1935, and replaced with U.S. Route 1 in 1938. With the coming of World War II and the return of the Navy to Key West came new water and power services down the length of the Keys, which would help promote the post war real estate development boom that would continue into the 1980s. Thus began the tragedy of poor planning that removed 4,700-acres of forest and 3,100-acres of mangrove wetland ecosystems in order to construct Route 1 and 481 waterfront residential canals that were designed to accommodate a larger residential population, businesses and increasing visitor trade. The environmental impact of these “dead end” canals would linger. They were not designed to provide adequate water circulation with adjacent waters, let alone address the impact of sewerage effluent from all the newly installed septic tanks leaching back into the surrounding waters via the porous rock formation and fill material, nor the increase of storm water runoff from the change in topography and reduction of ground cover.

Concern over the degradation of the coral reefs prompted the establishment of the world’s first underwater sanctuary at John Pennekamp State Park in 1960. In 1975, the State of Florida declared the Keys an Area of Critical State Concern, due to poor planning and management of the rapid over-development. Key West tourism was heavily impacted by the beach closures of 1989 and 1990, due to the waters being contaminated by human sewage. 1990 also saw the Keys and surrounding waters placed under the domain of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.


The budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to oversee the preservation, monitoring and restoration efforts within the sanctuary totaled $82.9 million from 1992 through 2013. This operating budget does not include the many agencies that have contributed over the years and continue to contribute. Some of the agencies that contribute funding (directly and indirectly), staff and in-kind support include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission; Florida Department of Environmental Protection and its Division of Recreation & Parks; NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program; Florida’s Monroe County; Reef Environmental Education Foundation; the National Park Service; The Nature Conservancy; the National Audubon Society; the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition. Numerous colleges, universities and non-governmental organizations also have been involved.

The general population also appreciates the natural beauty and recreational opportunities of FKNMS. In 2012, an estimated 4.4 million visitors came to the Keys, up 33.8 percent from 2007. In June 2010, the Natural Resources Defense Council produced a fact sheet on the Florida Keys documenting GDP contribution of tourism and recreation at $1.22 million, and commercial seafood processing at $25.2 million. 

During 1995–96, NOAA conducted the first economic survey of the FKNMS to value non-market use of the sanctuary’s ecosystems by visitors. An interesting approach that estimated one would be willing to pay $30.4 billion to own the natural resources of the sanctuary and charge visitors for the use of the resources. The survey was followed up in 2000–01 to look specifically at use of the coral reefs and included residents as wells as visitors. The estimated asset value for reef use alone came to $1.72 billion. According to the report, “all uses of the artificial and natural reefs of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary generated over $540 million in Sales/Output, including multiplier impacts. This generated $140 million in income in Monroe County, which supported almost 10,000 full and part time jobs.  Reef use accounted for 18 percent of the total Monroe County economy.”


The force main sewer system to replace the septic tanks in the Keys, originally scheduled to be online in July 2010 at a cost of $939 million, is still in progress and now nearing completion. As the completion date approaches, the FKNMS Water Quality Steering Committee has established a working group to focus on the next phase towards improving the design and functionality of the Residential Canals.

Both home owners and home owner associations have been proactive in conducting small-scale tests with mechanical and biological processes to improve the water quality in their canals, overall quality of their neighborhoods, and the value of their homes. Monroe County is now about to engage in testing of five technologies on seven unincorporated canals with total cap limit of $5 million. The City of Islamorada also is funding two of their incorporated canals as part of the proof of concept review. 

The technologies include installation of culverts to improve water circulation; installation water circulation pumps; installation of gating systems to prevent the canals from catching wind and current driven “weed wrack;” removal of organic material from the canals; and, the most expensive option of shallowing the canal depths with inert fill material. Industry firm AMEC provided the initial water quality survey and ranking of the Canal Inventory, while Florida International University will provide the water quality monitoring and benthic surveys to document the results of the two year canal restoration program. Pending the success of methodology by canal characteristics and water quality improvement, the intent is to obtain further funding for the restoration of the remaining canal systems.


It is interesting to note that of the seven unincorporated canals selected for methodology testing, five have been selected on Big Pine Key. The Nature Conservancy has acquired 574-acres of Big Pine Key for inclusion in the National Key Deer Refuge, and manages the 20-acre Terrestris Preserve, which is home to 14 rare native plant species. In 2007, The Conservancy initiated a study to model sea level rise impacts to Big Pine Key. Using the best case scenario of a 7-in sea level rise by 2100, 34 percent (1,180-acres) of Big Pine Key would be inundated with salt water. This includes a loss of 11 percent of upland habitat (upland habitat occupied 29 percent of the island mass in 2007) and $40 million in property loss (at 2008 dollar valuation). 

Upon expanding the study to all the Florida Keys in 2009, the results made national headlines in U.S. News & World Report. “By 2100,” the magazine wrote, “under the best predictions of seven-inch sea-level rise by an  international climate panel, the Keys would lose about 59,000 acres of real estate worth $11 billion, according to the nonprofit Nature Conservancy. Under the panel’s worst-case projection of ocean waters rising 23.2 inches, about 75 percent of the Keys 154,000 acres and nearly 50 percent of its $43 billion property value could be submerged.  Consequences also include the loss of habitat for many endangered plants and species, including Key deer.” 

Key West Sea Level RiseA sea level rise of 23.2-in would flood 51 percent of Big Pine Key, with an additional 37 percent becoming the new intertidal zone. 2010 estimates by Hans Hoegh‐Guldberg provide calculations that are even more alarming. Best case scenario at 8.7-in sea level rise by 2100 would inundate 44 percent of the Keys and reduce the population by as much, with second best scenario seeing 70 percent land reduction and 55 percent population decrease by 2100.

In 2009, Monroe County joined West Palm Beach, Broward and Miami Dade counties in the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, with several initiatives for response planning and mitigation of climate change and sea level rise. Primary initiatives are reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and adaptation to higher sea levels. For planning purposes, the counties are using the intermediate and high estimate curves from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 2009 Sea Level Rise estimates. 

The Monroe County Community Climate Action Plan was formally approved by the county commissioners in November 2013. The emphasis of the plan placed on reducing greenhouse gas emissions through green construction, sustainable energy consumption while developing alternative energy sources, water conservation, as well as improving water quality protection in the Keys and the restoration of the Florida Everglades in order to provide a more resilient environment to mitigate and survive the eventual flooding of salt water. 


The economic value of FKNMS is proven and documented. It is a resource we cannot afford not to preserve. As the coalition of agencies continues to mitigate land source pollution, future funding priorities will need to be directed towards the effects of global warming and sea level rise.    

Opportunities for future environmental research projects and ongoing studies include updating methods of valuing the coastal waters, the development of temperature and pH tolerant corals to survive both global warming and the increase in ocean acidification; methodology for adapting inundated terrestrial lands to intertidal and submerged mangrove, sea grass, and coral habitats; and identifying and securing upland habitat for endangered and threatened species protected areas, to include future sustainability policy development for these protected areas and species.  

Emergency management and policy development projects include: review and refinement of inundation maps; development of roll back plans to prepare developed properties for salt water submersion; and adaptation schemes and policies  for rolling easement, while incorporating urban planning to accommodate the future foot print to sustain the community, recreational tourism and commercial fishing industry into the next century.



CW03 John Mac Dougall, M.SAME, USN (Ret.), is an Environmental Researcher; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..