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New life for string of ocean reefs off Florida

If approved, marine reserve could be model for ocean conservation and

Any time commercial fishermen and conservationists in the Florida Keys agree on anything, skeptical locals see it as a kind of miracle.

And that is exactly what's happened with a recent proposal to create a 185-square-nautical-mile ecological reserve near the Dry Tortugas, a chain of reefs and desert islands about 70 miles west of Key West.

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It is a precedent-setting move that some experts say represents the wave of the future for both ocean conservation and management of depleted fish stocks. If approved, it would be the largest marine reserve in the US, and one of the largest in the world.

"What we are hoping to do is take it now while it is still relatively untouched and preserve it for all time," says Cheva Heck of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, a federal agency that supports establishment of the underwater reserve.

The proposal emerged last month from an advisory committee comprising the full range of special interests in the Keys, including fishermen, scientists, conservationists, and divers.

A gantlet of regional, state, and federal agencies must still approve the plan, but proponents are hopeful that as long as the carefully negotiated consensus holds, the reserve may become a reality by next spring.

The idea is to set aside a huge expanse of ocean reefs and grass beds to minimize as much as possible man-made intrusions on the underwater ecosystem.

That means a total ban on fishing, both commercial and recreational, within the boundaries. Diving for lobster, harvesting coral, even collecting sea shells would be forbidden. In effect, the only thing that legally could be taken inside the reserve is a photograph.

Wildlife biologists say the targeted area is a major spawning ground for reef fish, including snapper and grouper. If left in its natural state, they say, it could lead to an abundance of sea life that would help repopulate heavily fished waters throughout the Keys. In effect, it would become a natural fish factory, which ultimately would benefit commercial and recreational fishermen.

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Benefits of fishing ban

A large area of the ocean would be off limits to fishermen, but, in theory, other fishing grounds would benefit from spillover from the protected region.

That concept helped sell fishermen on the plan. In addition, the fishermen played a direct role in negotiating the size and placement of the reserve.

Some conservationists called for a 600-square-nautical-mile reserve while fishermen wanted no reserve at all.

The 185 square-mile compromise was actually drawn up by fishermen. To the surprise of many observers, it won the unanimous support of the committee.

"It is something that is just unheard of in the Keys," says Debra Harrison of the World Wildlife Fund, who was involved in the successful negotiations. "The commercial fishermen basically championed the boundary alternative on the basis that they could still conduct their commercial fishing and make a reasonable income with the establishment of the ecological reserve."

Alexander Stone of Reef Keeper International, a Miami-based conservation group, calls the project a "textbook compromise." "Nobody is happy with it, but everybody can live with it."

Fishermen's support

Don DeMaria is a commercial fisherman who says, in the short term, the reserve may deprive some fishermen access to productive fishing grounds. But the reserve may provide long-term insurance to all Keys fishermen, he adds. Mr. DeMaria says similar reserves have helped bolster fish stocks elsewhere in the world and he expects the concept will work in the Keys as well.

"What we are talking about in the Keys is setting a really important international and national precedent," says Will Hildesley of the World Wildlife Fund's Endangered Seas Campaign. "There are very few other precedents for commercial fishermen giving useful fishing grounds away to be protected. [The fishermen] see it as an experiment, as well as an opportunity to see what kinds of benefits they are going to get."

Mr. Hildesley says he expects both commercial and recreational fishermen will not be disappointed. If successful reserves elsewhere in the world are any indication, in two to five years fishermen will begin to see an increase in both the size and numbers of fish in the region.

Jack Sobel of the Center for Marine Conservation is also optimistic the reserve will pay long-term dividends. "It is one of the most prolific spawning areas for reef fish in the Gulf of Mexico and the southeastern United States."

Both Sobel and Hildesley warn that creation of marine reserves is not a panacea for all the oceans' problems, including pollution and overfishing. But in concert with fish management and water-quality efforts, they say, reserves can help ensure the future health and long-term preservation of a marine ecosystem in its wild, most natural state.

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