With 1,350 miles of coastline and a $62 billion tourism industry largely dependent on the quality of its waters, Florida has good reason to fear the disastrous consequences of pollution and overfishing.
In the wake of a warning earlier this month that the world's seafood stocks could be depleted by 2048, Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and his cabinet have signed off on a pioneering marine protection plan that some experts say should become a model for the nation. All fishing will be banned in a 46-square-mile stretch of ocean 70 miles west of Key West, which will be incorporated within the Dry Tortugas National Park to create the largest marine reserve in the continental US.
"It's a huge step forward for marine ecosystem management in Florida," says David White, a regional director for the Ocean Conservancy. "Protecting the ecological integrity of the area, including the country's only living coral reef, was the cake. The icing is the fisheries benefits it will provide. The fish that spawn there will be spreading throughout the Keys."
With stocks of cod, grouper, and other once-prevalent fish at record lows nationwide – for example, the Ocean Conservancy estimates that numbers of red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico are at barely 3 percent of historic levels – few dispute the need for immediate action. Florida's plan comes amid other moves nationwide to protect the nation's waters.
In California, the first of a network of marine refuges, covering about 200 square miles from Santa Barbara to south of San Francisco, will open early next year.
And in June, President Bush's administration announced that more than 140,000 square miles off the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, including a number of atolls and coral reefs, would be gradually closed to commercial fishing over the next few years.
"There's lots of potential," says David Helvarg, president of the Washington-based Blue Frontier Campaign." Mr. Helvarg is hopeful that last month's takeover of Congress by the Democratic Party will lead to more coordinated, sustained efforts to protect oceans. "We're seeing lots of action at local and state level, and that needs to be ramped up at national and government level if our oceans are to survive."
Florida's no-fishing zone will allow some of the most endangered species to spawn in safety away from human disturbance, conservationists say. It will also provide marine biologists with the opportunity to study and compare the quality of the "untainted" waters with that of the habitat outside the zone.
Yet the Dry Tortugas plan is not without controversy. Fishing boat captains who run private trips to the area argue that individual anglers are not the ones depleting fish stocks. They say that unless commercial fishing is restricted throughout the Gulf, the effect of a ban on recreational fishing in the marine reserve will be negligible.
"I'm on the dock every day, and I see what people are bringing back on the charters and mom-and-pop fishing boats, and that isn't doing it," says Mike Furlani, a 25-year game-fisherman who operates sports boats in Isles of Capri, Fla.
The problem, he believes, is the commercial boats that haul in massive numbers of fish as "by-catch" and discard them in order to catch shrimp. "The Gulf can't sustain an industry that kills nine pounds of fish to generate one pound of living product," he says.
One powerful dissenting voice is Charlie Crist, Florida's governor-elect and current attorney general, who opposed the five-year fishing ban in a 3-to-1 vote because he said it infringed on the rights of individual fishermen.
As a compromise, the panel agreed that recreational fishing could resume in five years without the need for a vote.
But Mr. White, for one, does not believe that the partnership between conservationists and the state will then automatically fall apart. "We renew our vows or file for divorce," he says, "but for the first time in North America we have a [protected] coral reef ecosystem with a full range of marine wildlife."