Indiana University’s Eppley Institute for Parks and Public Lands, part of the School of Public Health’s Department of Recreation, Parks and Tourism studies, has been awarded a grant from the US Environmental Protection Agency to design, develop, and host an online boater education course for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS).
The three-year award will fund Eppley’s work to educate boaters in the Sanctuary’s waters. The FKNMS protects 2,900 square miles from Biscayne Bay to the Dry Tortugas on Florida’s southern coast. In addition to sensitive seagrass meadows, the Sanctuary’s waters contain the nation’s only coral reef adjacent to the continent. The area is home to multiple state and federally protected species, including the American crocodile, West Indian manatee, and several species of sea turtles. When it was designated in 1990, Congress described the FKNMS as “the marine equivalent of tropical rain forests in that they support high levels of biological diversity, are fragile and easily susceptible to damage from human activities, and possess high value to human beings if properly conserved” (FKNMS Protection Act, 1990).
The shallow-water seagrass habitat is prone to damage from boat propellers and vessel groundings. Despite federal regulations against damaging the seabed in the FKNMS, over 100 vessel groundings per year are documented within the sanctuary waters. The local county has around 30,000 acres of significantly scarred seagrass beds – more than any other county in Florida. Creating a widely accessible, targeted, online boater education program will be a strategic management tool for protecting the FKNMS’s natural resources.
The Eppley Institute is preparing to launch another set of online courses for boaters in Everglades National Park. As part of Everglades’ general management plan, the Park is going to require powerboaters there to pass the online training before obtaining a mandatory boating permit. The Everglades National Park Online Boater Education course is offered in both English and Spanish on proValens Learning, Eppley’s online course catalog. The online course for the FKNMS will incorporate content from the Everglades project as well as site-specific information.
Partners in the new project include the National Parks Conservation Association, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and many other community and agency stakeholders.