Good water quality is critical to the health of coral reefs and all the habitats of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Changes in water quality, including increases in levels of specific nutrients, can have serious negative effects on marine life. To better understand how humans have an impact on water quality and how those changes affect sanctuary habitats, the Water Quality Protection Program was created in 1994.
The Water Quality Protection Program is administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the State of Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection. The program is designed to make recommendations on how to maintain and restore the ideal water quality needed for healthy native plant and animal populations to thrive in sanctuary waters. Through the Water Quality Protection Program, water quality, seagrass meadows, and coral reefs have been monitored in the sanctuary since the mid-1990s.
Information from these long-term monitoring programs provides insight into the complex balance of the marine ecosystem in the Florida Keys. This information also allows researchers and managers to detect any changes in the sanctuary from upstream influences.
For additional information, read Water Quality: Frequently Asked Questions (pdf, 420 kb).
Water Quality Monitoring Program
Since 1995, scientists from Florida International University have been collecting water quality samples at 154 sites throughout the Florida Keys as part of the Water Quality Monitoring Program. Water quality is based on many factors, including the levels of specific nutrients — nitrogen and phosphate — which are often found in high concentrations in wastewater and stormwater. If the levels of these nutrients get too high it put stress on marine life, making them more prone to disease and even death.
Scientists in the Water Quality Monitoring Program also look at how sanctuary waters are influenced by activities outside the Florida Keys.
Coral Reef Monitoring Program
The health of the coral reef ecosystem in the Florida Keys depends on the quality of water in which the corals live. Even a slight deterioration in water quality can be stressful to the reef. To collect valuable information about the reef ecosystem, scientists from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission began systematically monitoring coral reefs throughout Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in 1996. This research program, called the Coral Reef Evaluation and Monitoring Program (CREMP), studies various aspects of reef health at 40 sites throughout the sanctuary.
CREMP scientists look at the coral health as it relates to the quality of the water. Coral reef research and monitoring are especially important for tracking the effects of increasing seawater temperatures and sea level rise associated with the Earth’s changing climate.For more information, read the Coral Reef Evaluation and Monitoring Science Summary (pdf, 783 kb).
Seagrass Monitoring Program
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and adjacent waters are home to some of the largest seagrass meadows in the world. Seagrass provides critical nursery and feeding grounds for many invertebrates, fish, birds, reptiles, and marine mammals, including many species that are important to the local fisheries. It also supports the productive coral reefs of the sanctuary. Since 1995, scientists from Florida International University have been studying seagrass to track changes over time, in particular changes caused by increased nutrient levels in nearshore waters.
Seagrass prefers water with a lower amount of the nutrients nitrogen and phosphate. When nutrients increase, other plants which prefer higher nutrient levels may move in and replace seagrass. Too many nutrients can also cause tiny plants which float in the water to flourish and block sunlight, which the seagrass needs to survive.
Scientists with the Seagrass Monitoring Program sample and analyze the health of seagrass meadows at 30 permanent sites and additional random sites. These studies can detect changes in seagrass meadows even before there has been any significant loss of this vital habitat.
Special studies in the Water Quality Protection Program have helped scientists and managers to better understand a host of topics including groundwater seepage, the effects of mosquito-control measures on non-target animals, human pathogens in canals, and the effects of pharmaceutical drugs on marine life.