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PRESERVING THE KEYS // A sanctuary within the sea

The Florida Keys, home of the largest coral reef system in North America, will be protected as a sanctuary for sea life.

After years of rancorous debate and revised plans, Gov. Lawton Chiles and the Cabinet on Tuesday voted unanimously _ and without debate _ to approve a comprehensive federal offer to manage the Keys' prized but increasingly polluted waters.

Their vote for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary will bring a government presence that conservation groups across the country welcomed and many local residents shunned. It creates the first no-fishing preserve in any national marine sanctuary, and it will regulate various commercial and tourist activities throughout the Keys.

While Cabinet members cast a perfunctory vote, the audience was less subdued. Applause erupted from a packed hearing room, and some supporters of the Keys plan stood and cheered.

Sanctuary opponents, meanwhile, appeared stunned by the swift adoption of a plan they fought for years. They vowed to fight on in Congress to abolish it.

"If you want to see the first socialist state of the United States of America, come down to the Florida Keys," said Jay Usher, a commercial treasure salvager.

Architects of the Keys sanctuary plan call it the most ambitious in the nation's sanctuary system.

Its overall goal is to let commerce and tourism flourish on a small chain of islands that attract millions of visitors yearly, but without sacrificing the coral reefs, the keystone of the Keys' economy.

To residents and visitors, that will mean new regulations, especially near the reefs.

Most conspicuously, a 9-square-mile area just east of Key West will become an "ecological preserve," where no sea life may be caught by hook, trap or spear. Eventually, a larger preserve may be created near the Dry Tortugas, a shrimping area west of the inhabited Keys.

Fishing also will be banned in 18 smaller preservation areas _ covering about 5 square miles _ on the coral reefs, and some small research areas will be closed to visitors.

Those restricted zones now cover less than 1 percent of the sanctuary, whose planners once talked of closing 20 percent of its waters to fishing.

Outside of those areas, the marine sanctuary's existence will be less noticeable to visitors.

Water quality will be monitored extensively, a step that may be followed by extensive replacements of septic systems. Boating regulations will be adopted to protect bird nesting areas, seagrasses and the reefs.

Treasure hunters digging among the remains of shipwrecks will face new restrictions on their gear and their claims to what the plan calls "submerged cultural resources."

The Keys sanctuary covers about 2,800 square miles from the Florida mainland to the Tortugas. It will be managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, an agency of the Commerce Department.

Terry Garcia, NOAA's deputy administrator, urged the Cabinet to protect what he called a seagrass and reef system unique in the waters of the United States and invaluable to marine life.

"Coral reefs have been called the rain forests of the sea," he said.

State approval of the sanctuary plan was critical to its fate because two-thirds of its area is in state waters. To allay fears of a federal takeover, NOAA agreed to obtain state consent before exercising many of the plan's regulatory powers.

Before voting, the Cabinet gave dozens of people a chance to speak briefly for or against the sanctuary.

Among the "user groups" in the sanctuary plan, treasure salvagers had the most to lose.

They feared NOAA would put them out of business, and they were furious that amendments affecting their livelihood were passed out just before the Cabinet vote.

Fishermen wanted the no-fishing zone removed.

Commercial fishing in the Keys amounted to "$70-million at the dock last year," said Tom Murray, speaking for Monroe County commercial fishermen. "They have a lot at risk."

Divers, on the other hand, were pleased with a plan that allows them to observe sea life in a preserve where fishing boats will be forbidden.

"No other user group depends on how beautiful the bottom of the sea life is, and all of its creatures," said Spencer Slade, president of a Florida dive operators association.

Opponents of the sanctuary reminded the Cabinet that 55 percent of the Keys voted against this plan in a referendum last November. Sensing defeat, however, most asked only for a delay of the state's vote.

Proponents reminded the Cabinet that many residents of the Keys agreed with conservation groups advocating the sanctuary plan.

Vicki Weeks, a dive shop operator, named 18 people in the audience _ parents, mortgage brokers, scientists, students, a teacher _ and called on them to stand as citizens of the Keys who want to live in a national marine sanctuary.

The students, members of the Mother Earth Ecology Club at Coral Shores High School, said they came as representatives of one generation asking another to act for a generation not yet born.

"We want our children to be able to see living coral reefs," said 17-year-old Jennifer Murray.