Combining Science and Technology in the Tortugas Ecological Reserve, Florida


The increase in population and tourism in the Florida Keys over the past few decades has caused degradation of the marine environment.

To protect the reef from further degradation, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary oversaw a three-year collaborative process, dubbed "Tortugas 2000." Sanctuary advisory members, stakeholders, and government agency members were represented throughout the process. "Tortugas 2000" resulted in the implementation of the Tortugas Ecological Reserve, a fully protected marine reserve within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

The purpose of this study was to collect and analyze socioeconomic data of users in the Tortugas area, particularly use patterns of commercial fishermen.

Methods, Tools, and Data


Social Impact Assessment
A system of surveys and informal conversation was used to determine the socioeconomic impact of a closure on fishermen within the sanctuary. Fishermen, charter boat captains, marina operators, and scientists were consulted to determine what areas are fished, which fish are found in those areas, and how much the fish are worth. Demographics of the fishermen were also recorded. This information was used to minimize the impact of potential no-take zones on the fishing community.

A grid map of the Tortugas Ecological Reserve was developed and segmented by one-minute lines of longitude and latitude, creating one-square-nautical-mile cells. The grid map contained 1,020 of these cells. Fishermen were given copies of this map and asked to outline where they landed their catch. This information was entered into a geographic information system (GIS), allowing researchers to visually determine the intensity of use of each area.

Related Methods

GIS is a compilation of hardware, software, and data that enables users to manipulate, analyze, and display geographically referenced information. GIS is used to document human use patterns, identifying culturally sensitive areas, prioritizing regions for additional public access, or highlighting demographic trends within a community.
Social assessment is a method of data collection and analysis used to characterize the social environment in the area in which one manages (e.g., watershed, protected area). Social impact assessment is used to predict impacts related to implementation of management resources or policy changes.

Discussion of Results

The studies at the Tortugas Ecological Reserve allowed researchers to determine where fishing was taking place so they could reduce the impacts of the establishment of the no-take zone. The results also helped scientists have a better idea of spawning grounds and fish aggregation areas.

Using the data in a GIS helped researchers effectively present the information to decision makers.

Involving fishermen in the decision-making process built trust among project partners and helped enlist their support for long-term resource management.

Related Partners

NOAA is a federal agency focused on the condition of the oceans and the atmosphere. It plays several distinct roles within the Department of Commerce.


  • This research was conducted by B. D. Cowie-Haskell and J. M. Delaney.

Books and Publications


  • Tortugas 2000 Project
    Located on the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary website, the Tortugas 2000 component describes the project region, how the ecological reserve will be established, and how to get involved in the process. Also included are detailed information and reports on all phases of the project.