Blue Star Program Promotes Stewardship in the Florida Keys

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary protects the only living barrier reef in the U.S. To dive it, choose an operator in the Blue Star program who promotes responsible and sustainable practices.

Why do you dive? For many (if not all), the answer is the beauty of the world beneath the waves. Coral reefs are one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. Thousands of species rely on reefs for survival. Coastal communities all over the world depend on coral reefs as well, for food, protection, and jobs. The only living barrier reef in the continental U.S. surrounds a chain of islands at the southernmost tip of Florida.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary protects the spectacular marine resources that draw an estimated 700,000 divers and snorkelers each year. With so many visitors, environmental stewardship is imperative. And that’s where the Blue Star program comes in.

What is the Blue Star program?

To strike a balance between the environment and the economy, the sanctuary, with National Marine Sanctuary Foundation support, established the Blue Star program to recognize dive and snorkel businesses that promote responsible and sustainable practices. The program, started in 2009, has become so successful that it is expanding to fishing guides this year. No matter where you stay in the Florida Keys, there is a Blue Star business nearby.

A range of factors is stressing the reefs in the Keys, including overuse by uninformed or irresponsible visitors. However, unlike some stressors such as warming waters and disease, we can easily prevent damage from divers and snorkelers.

Blue Star operators work hard to help customers become better environmental stewards. As divers explore Sanctuary, many unintentionally come into contact with the reef by touching, kicking, or dragging gear. The average diver makes contact with coral 18 times during a 60-minute dive, according to a Sheffield Hallam University (England) study conducted in the sanctuary.

Even a slight touch can seriously damage delicate corals. Divers can cause abrasions that remove the protective mucous layer, leaving corals susceptible to disease and predation. Corals grow incredibly slowly, at a rate of 0.1 to 4 inches (0.3 to 10 cm) per year depending on the species. Frequent breakage of coral due to diver impacts challenges the growth of the reef as a whole. Kicking up sand or sediment with fins can also injure coral polyps and sponges.

Becoming a Blue Star operator

To meet Blue Star program requirements, operators must train all staff on the importance of coral reef ecosystems, diving and snorkeling etiquette, and the rules and regulations of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Dive staff receive educational materials to share during pre-trip environmental briefings, which introduce guests to the sanctuary and remind them of sustainable diving and snorkeling practices. Studies show that divers who participate in these types of briefings cause significantly less coral damage than those who do not.

Blue Star operators also agree to use mooring buoys when available, recycle engine oil, and offer at least one conservation activity, such as a marine-debris cleanup or coral restoration, per year.

Hurricane Irma cleanup

Since Hurricane Irma in September 2017, Blue Star operators have rallied around an effort to remove marine debris swept into the sanctuary waters by winds and storm surge. As land-based debris removal operations took place, operators formed plans to remove marine debris from residential canals, waterways, and along the reef. A massive effort, led by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, removed nearly 2,000 vessels identified as potential pollution threats.

Reef assessments and information from local dive operators cataloged everything from sofas and refrigerators to pipes and busted lobster traps littering the reef tract and backcountry flats. Blue Star operators are doing their part by offering special debris-removal trips, during which customers can help clean up the sanctuary.

When planning a dive or snorkel trip in the Florida Keys, book with a Blue Star charter. Doing so means you’ll be selecting an operator dedicated to education and coral-reef conservation. Many Blue Star dive shops offer regular conservation activities. These include cleaning up marine debris, hunting invasive lionfish, or partnering with local nonprofit organizations like Coral Restoration Foundation and Mote Marine Laboratory to re-establish live corals. To find a list of Blue Star operators or express interest in becoming a Blue Star operator, click here.

By guest authors Marlies Tumolo and Eric Raslich, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary