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The Tortugas

The Tortugas are a remote area; some 70 miles west of Key West and over 140 miles from mainland Florida. Its coral reef, hardbottom, and seagrass communities are bathed by the clearest and cleanest waters in the Florida Keys archipelago, due in part to the strong influence of the Florida Current or Gulf Stream. At some point, the waters of the entire Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico pass by the doorstep of the Tortugas, delivering a phenomenally rich array of organisms from a huge area of the Caribbean basin (see Callum Robert's article in Science v. 278, 21 Nov. 1997). As a result, the Tortugas is a swirling vortex of marine biodiversity fueled by one of the world's strongest currents.

This region's characteristics are ecologically unique. It is North America's only breeding ground for sooty terns, brown noodies, masked boobies, and frigate birds all of which depend on healthy fish communities for their prey. The Tortugas are also home to America's largest brick structure and boasts a number of "firsts" including the location of the world's first underwater photograph, the world's first marine protected area (Fort Jefferson National Monument, est. 1935), and the first tropical marine laboratory in the Western Hemisphere.

Louis and Alexander Agassiz, renowned early marine scientists, recognized the importance of the Tortugas and explored the region in 1850. As a result of their investigations, the Carnegie Institute of Washington D.C. established the Tortugas Marine Laboratory in 1904. During its subsequent 35 years of operation, the Tortugas Marine Laboratory hosted a number of the world's leading scientists. The research papers from these investigations are available for viewing at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, DC. In 1997, Thomas Schmidt of the National Park Service and Linda Pikula of the NOAA regional library published an annotated bibliography of the scientific studies of Dry Tortugas National Park that includes abstracts of many of the early papers.

The Florida Keys coral reef ecosystem has changed significantly since the days of the Tortugas Marine Lab and Agassiz's explorations. One thing that hasn't changed much, however, is the relatively undisturbed quality of the water and marine resources in the area. The establishment of this ecological reserve is necessary if these resources are to be conserved. This ecological reserve will also serve as the best reference site available for evaluating the changes that occur in the coral reef ecosystem along the more human-influenced portions of the Keys' reef tract. Having this reference site will help to discriminate between natural and human-induced changes to the ecosystem. In addition, by protecting the biodiversity in the reserve, the integrity of the ecosystem will be maintained and/or restored, thereby strengthening its utility as a reference site.

Information provided by:
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

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