Charting the seas - sensitively

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We are beginning an important new era of protection for vital marine areas around the Florida Keys. On Sunday, the International Maritime Organization's historic measures protecting more than 3,000 square nautical miles as "a particularly sensitive sea area" go into effect. With this rare designation, the waters of the Keys become the first in the nation, and only the third in the world, to be highlighted on international charts with measures directing captains to navigate in an environmentally sensitive way.

The designation reflects what can be accomplished when diverse communities work collaboratively for the good of our economy and environment.

Fragile coral reefs and other vulnerable marine assets will now have safeguards to protect them from injury caused by heavy anchors and swinging chains and cables. The designation will shield sensitive coral reefs from ship groundings and pollution from accidental and operational spills. Just one spill, from one collision, can mean disaster for coral reefs and the economy associated with them. The Keys, for example, are home to the world's third-largest barrier reef system and generate more than $1.2 billion in tourism.

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Seagrass meadows, extensive living coral reefs, and endangered species are part of this spectacular, highly productive and still mysterious system in the Keys. Since 1984, there have been 10 damaging ship groundings there. Since 1997, there have been at least 17 other instances of harm. The Keys are among the world's busiest sea lanes, with 40 percent of world commerce estimated to pass through the area annually. Without disturbing the flow of commerce in the Keys, there has been a compelling need to protect their finite riches as well as the tourism and recreational dollars they attract.

Gaining designation as a particularly sensitive sea area means ships can still pass through. But because they can no longer anchor in some spots and must avoid others, precious natural resources will be better protected. The Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) worked with US shipping companies, local fishing interests, the administration of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the Coast Guard and the State and Defense Departments. This teamwork achieved environmental and economic balance that will pay off now and for future generations.

NOAA's nautical charts have cautioned mariners about coral reefs for years. Under US law, measures have also been enacted to protect the Keys, and US shipping interests have complied with them. But charts produced in other countries have not always reflected navigational hazards in the Keys.

That changes Sunday. US coral reefs will now be better protected by the rest of the world. The NOAA Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, encompassing all of the protected area, gains international protections to help it remain an outstanding reflection of America's marine heritage.

Samuel Bodman is deputy secretary of the US Department of Commerce.

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