In 1984, a 92 square-nautical-mile (316 km²) portion of these reefs was designated the Oculina Habitat Area of Particular Concern. In 1994, the area was closed to all manner of bottom fishing and was redesignated a research reserve. In 2000, the marine protected area was expanded to 300 square nautical miles (1,030 km²) and prohibited all gears that caused mechanical disruption to the habitat.
Commercial and recreational harvesters heavily exploited reef fish, such as grouper and snapper, prior to the establishment of the reserve, and extensive areas of ivory tree coral habitat had been reduced to rubble by trawling or dredging, with few or no living coral colonies remaining in sections of the bank. Reef fish populations in the impacted areas have become sparse. The reserve is now undergoing habitat restoration projects.