Boat anchors can cause significant damage to seafloor habitats. Whether from the dragging of a single anchor or anchor chain during a storm, or the repeated anchoring of boats at a popular dive spot, the damage can transform a picturesque, productive habitat to rubble. To counter this, many MPAs have installed mooring buoys. Consisting of a permanent fixture on the seafloor, a floating buoy on the surface, and a line or cable to attach the two, these systems enable boat users to tie off to an existing mooring rather than drop anchor, thus reducing the effect on the environment.

Installing and maintaining mooring buoys are not without challenges, however. This month, MPA News provides an introduction to this technology and examines how managers are using it to control visitor impacts.

What roles can mooring buoys play in MPAs?

Although all mooring buoy systems feature the same three general components described above, they otherwise come in a variety of designs. The different designs allow individual models to perform well in particular environments (solid bedrock, sand, mud, and so forth) and offer various other features, like self-cleaning buoy lines to reduce maintenance costs. A MPA considering installation of mooring buoys will want to match its environment, user needs, and technical and financial capabilities with the appropriate system. (An explanation of the types of mooring buoy systems available, as well as an overview of mooring buoys in general and tips on installing a system, is available in the Mooring Buoy Planning Guide, published by the Project AWARE Foundation and the PADI International Resort Association. It can be downloaded at In addition, a case study on installation of mooring buoys at Komodo National Park, Indonesia, is available at

Aside from helping prevent anchor damage, mooring buoys can aid MPAs in other ways. Billy Causey, superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in the US, says that while the sanctuary’s deployment of hundreds of mooring buoys in high-use areas has effectively eliminated anchor damage to the coral reefs and seagrass areas, it has also provided benefits such as demonstrating protective management action. “The installation of mooring buoys is a very visual sign to sanctuary visitors that management actions are being taken to protect the coral reefs,” says Causey. In addition, he says, the mooring buoys provide convenience and peace of mind to resource users, who can tie off relatively easily and can rely on the moorings for a solid hold.

Craig Quirolo, founder and director of marine projects for Reef Relief (a US-based coral-protection NGO that installs mooring buoys as one of its programs), says the reef conservation effort symbolized by mooring buoys leads visitors to a discussion of anchoring impacts and introduces the concept of avoiding contact with fragile seafloor habitats. “This concept is easily extended to standing, touching, harvesting, etc., when diving or snorkeling,” he says. Mooring buoys can also help reduce user conflicts, he says, by demarcating where particular uses – such as diving or snorkeling – are allowed or promoted. “The buoys provide a perfect opportunity to establish no-take areas – you do not want spearfishing to occur where people are snorkeling,” he says.

What factors should managers consider when siting mooring buoys?

Mooring buoys are sited near sensitive seafloor habitat in need of protection, ideally in substrate appropriate for drilling and cementing. (In cases of “substrate failure”, an entire cemented core can be pulled up and dragged across the bottom.) Also, managers should generally place mooring buoys where boat users already prefer to go. Dave Merrill, president of, a private firm that has provided moorings and training to several marine parks worldwide, says, “When designing walkways, the saying goes, ‘Put them where the people walk.’ The dive vessel’s captain is going to take his customers to where it’s most attractive or of the most interest. To install a mooring where the parks people want the vessels to go, instead of where the users will go, is wasteful.” Considering the financial investment necessary for installing and maintain ing mooring buoys – US$500+ per mooring buoy per year, according to the Mooring Buoy Planning Guide – siting moorings where they will be used is imperative.

Activities associated with anchored boats in MPAs – diving and snorkeling, for example – can also have impacts on the environment, such as from kicking, standing, or uncontrolled buoyancy. The potential for this damage should be considered when siting mooring buoys, as moorings tend to focus user activity around them. When Kalli De Meyer took over management of Bonaire National Marine Park in 1991, a system of moorings already existed. “It had been put in place by the dive industry, whose prime consideration was creating access to their favorite dive sites,” says De Meyer, who is now executive director of the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance, an NGO based on Bonaire. “Using moorings as a tool to manage visitation had not yet been considered.” This was evident, she says, in the distance between moorings. “In our inherited system, moorings were placed too close together: divers could swim from one to the next and back again in a dive,” she says. As a result, there was no protected zone between the dive sites that was free from visitor impacts – the entire area was essentially one big dive site. “We have learned a lot since then,” she says.

Artie Jacobson, district manager for the Whitsunday region of the Great Barrier Reef for the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (Australia), says it is essential to involve the community and industry in choosing mooring buoy sites, particularly where use levels are high. The Whitsunday region, although comprising just 1% of the area of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, accounts for 60% of the park’s tourism activity.

“Each site within a park can be assessed in consultation with interest groups to determine how best it could be used and subsequently protected, assuming that conservation/protection is the bottom line,” says Jacobson. He instituted a program more than 10 years ago for the Whitsunday region that involved installation of mooring buoys to help manage visitors. “Rather than implement a ‘moorings program’, per se, we adopted the theme or project title of ‘reef appreciation and protection program’,” he says. “This broader approach allowed us to consider a number of options that would mitigate physical impact to the specific area (usually a bay or reef that was protected from the prevailing south easterly wind), and think about how best to provide for ongoing access and reef appreciation. It also allowed us to think about the cost of doing this – a key consideration.” Ultimately, the approach resulted in a tiered system that demarcated where anchoring and/or tying to a mooring buoy was allowed or not.

“When we commenced our program, we worked with the community to establish a volunteer dive group,” says Jacobson. “These teams went out into the park – through their own means – and surveyed the edge of the reef for where good coral-growing substrate existed, marking these sites with small temporary buoys.” Jacobson’s team followed, made any necessary adjustments, then installed markers and moorings to indicate the area’s management scheme. “Actively engaging the community in such schemes – these guys were generally employed by the dive industry – gave them a true sense of ownership in protecting these reef systems,” he says. “Consultation is good, but to engage the community and industry actively in the ‘doing’ side of business is even better.”

Jacobson says some sectors of the tourism industry would be happy to see moorings within every bay as it is convenient and cost-effective for them to pick up a mooring rather than lay and weigh anchor. “I don’t think we want to see every destination within the park ‘industrialized’ through the installation of infrastructure, though,” he says, adding that it would be too costly as well to implement.

What are the main challenges of operating mooring buoys?

As mentioned above, mooring buoys can serve as magnets for use, leading to seafloor impacts associated with visitor activity. The related degradation that can occur is another reason why mooring buoys are often not placed in pristine, unvisited areas [see next article]. To mitigate the impacts of this magnet effect, experts on mooring buoy installation suggest combining mooring buoys with other management actions, including reef closures, limited entry schemes, and rotation of buoys. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, for example, has installed 36 mooring pins in its Dry Tortugas Ecological Reserve, but puts only 12 buoys out at a time. “This is proving to be a good management tool,” says sanctuary Superintendent Causey. “We can manage the user activity by rotating the mooring buoys and requiring their use in the reserve.”

Dave Merrill of says, however, that the main challenge of mooring buoy systems is “money, money, money”. Namely, it costs to install the moorings and maintain them. Moorings wear out due to environmental factors and usage, and need to be replaced. Sometimes they are stolen or cut. The investment does not end with the initial installation.

Merrill says that because mooring buoys offer convenience to users, it may be feasible to pass along at least some of the expense to them. “Most mariners understand there is an expense to installing and maintaining moorings,” he says. “To have moorings for the boaters to utilize certainly helps rationalize the necessity of a user fee.”

David Rowat, chairman of the Marine Conservation Society Seychelles (MCSS), an NGO, says that the high cost of fuel and labor in the Seychelles is partly to blame for why many of the country’s 80-plus installed mooring buoys have fallen into disrepair. Maintenance of the moorings is the responsibility of the national marine parks authority and several local conservation organizations (not including MCSS), but these institutions are short of funds to carry out the task, says Rowat. The poor condition of the moorings has led boaters to avoid them and drop anchor elsewhere. A new funding system is needed, he says. (Rowat estimates that the annualized cost of installation, monthly cleaning, and bi-annual replacement of components could add up to as much as US$1850 per mooring per year if performed by an outside contractor. If performed “in-house” by the marine parks authority and responsible NGOs, he says, the cost would be lower, assuming the expenses of staff time and vessel operations are internalized.)

MCSS is working to create a national mooring fee system in association with charter yacht operators, an expanding and profitable sector of the Seychelles tourism industry with more than 120 boats. (The dive sector, in contrast, has fewer than 25 boats.) Under the MCSS proposal, an additional 80 mooring buoys would be installed for charter boats’ use. Installation and maintenance would be paid for through a weekly mooring-use fee per boat, payable in advance by the charter companies and passed on to their clients. MCSS and the companies are in negotiations. “The fee would cover only the new mooring buoys,” says Rowat. “The existing mooring buoys are already covered under the individual arrangements with management organizations. [Maintenance of the existing mooring buoys] could be included in the new system if their organizations were prepared to contribute.”

Again, keeping the community and tourism sector involved is key to building support for a mooring buoy system and warding off opposition. Says Jacobson of Australia’s Whitsunday region, “Rather than promoting conservation as the key outcome of what we are attempting to do, I have learned that when dealing with tourism operators and industry it is best to use the term ‘tourism product’. This is not to downplay the value of conservation, but simply a way to highlight that what the industry is selling as a tourism product is all the things that nature provides. It then becomes easier to convince the industry that there is a range of ‘tourism products’ out there in the park available for presentation, and an ongoing need to work together to look after them. We are all in this together.”

For more information

Billy Causey, FKNMS, PO Box 500368, Marathon, FL 33050, US. Tel: +1 305 743 2437 x26; E-mail:

Craig Quirolo, Reef Relief, P.O. Box 430, Key West, FL 33041, US. Tel: +1 305 294 3100; E-mail:; Web:

Dave Merrill,, P.O. Box 119, Milford, NH 03055, US. Tel: +1 603.672.4619; E-mail:; Web:

Kalli De Meyer, Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance, Kaya Grandi # 20, Kralendijk, Bonaire, Dutch Caribbean. Tel: +599 717 5010 Email:

Artie Jacobson, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, Queensland, Australia. Tel: +61 7 4946 7022, E-mail:

David Rowat, Marine Conservation Society, PO Box 1299, Victoria, Mahe, Seychelles. Tel: +248 345445; E-mail:; Web