The coral reefs and seagrass meadows of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary are productive habitats that support the fishing, diving, and tourism industries of the Florida Keys. The health of these habitats is affected by many factors — ranging from water quality to hurricanes to disease. However, the most immediate injuries to these habitats occur from vessel groundings.
Hundreds of vessel groundings are reported annually in the Florida Keys. A boat hitting the reef can topple coral heads or grind coral colonies into tiny fragments, damaging and killing coral which may have taken centuries to build. Vessels that run aground on seagrass cut scars or large swaths through the meadows, creating injuries that may never heal, depriving marine life of important habitat.
Trained sanctuary biologists are called to the scene of vessel groundings to survey the amount of damage and make an injury assessment. For smaller groundings, measuring and mapping of the damage may be done with a tape measure, compass, and specialized tools. For larger groundings, damaged areas may be mapped with precise aerial photography and surveyor-grade Global Positioning System devices and computer mapping software. Photo, video, and other scientific documentation is used to determine the types and extent of living coral or seagrass damaged and the amount and type of seafloor or structure impacted.
An Ounce of Prevention
Most vessel groundings are preventable through preparation, patience, and experience. To prevent groundings, be sure to:
- Familiarize yourself with local waters.
- Always use an up-to-date nautical chart.
- Use marked channels where they exist and stay in deep water.
- Keep track of the tides and use extra caution when boating on a low tide.
- Know the depth of the water and draft of your boat.
- Wear polarized sunglasses to help read the water.