The Sanctuary

A pink and white bird flying over shallow water at sunset
Protections for the Florida Keys date back more than a century. Photo: Jack Louden/Get Into Your Sanctuary Photo Contest

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary was designated on November 16, 1990, following a series of boat groundings on the island chain's irreplaceable coral reefs, along with concerns about the decline of the reef ecosystem in the area. Today, the sanctuary protects 3,800 square miles of waters surrounding the Florida Keys, from south of Miami westward to the Dry Tortugas, excluding Dry Tortugas National Park. The shoreward boundary of the sanctuary is the mean high-water mark, meaning once you set foot in Keys waters, you enter Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The sanctuary is administered by NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and is jointly managed with the state of Florida.

Within the boundaries of this sanctuary lie unique and nationally significant marine resources including North America's only coral barrier reef, extensive seagrass beds, mangrove-fringed islands, and more than 6,000 species of marine life. The sanctuary also protects pieces of our nation's history such as shipwrecks and other archeological treasures.

Visitors to the sanctuary are encouraged to take advantage of the many recreational activities this amazing ecosystem has to offer, including world-class diving, swimming, snorkeling, and fishing. However, rules and regulations are in place to make sure that these activities only happen in ways — and at places — that reduce user conflict and are not harmful to the sanctuary's natural and cultural resources.

The Florida Keys have more than 77,000 residents and up to 5.5 million annual visitors, and a local economy of nearly $5.0 billion. In 2018, tourism spending in Monroe County accounted for $2.4 billion, supporting 44 percent of jobs/employment in the county. Tourism activity and spending is heavily dependent on the maintenance of a healthy marine environment. Approximately 60% of the economy is tied directly to marine-related activities, including commercial and recreational fishing, boating, diving, wildlife viewing, and other various tourist-related activities. A declining marine environment puts the Florida Keys' economy and jobs at risk.

Sanctuary Maps

A map of the Florida Keys with a boundary of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in black.
This simple map outlines the boundaries of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in relation to south Florida. It does not show the boundaries of individual marine zones, or the boundaries of other state or federal areas. Image: NOAA
A map of the Florida Keys with several different types of boundaries for Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and national wildlife refuges.
This map shows the boundaries of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and its marine zones, as well as the boundaries of adjacent parks and refuges differentiated by color. Image: NOAA


A mostly white lighthouse surrounded by turquoise water with a few boats anchored nearby
Alligator Reef Lighthouse is the most readily visible lighthouse from the Overseas Highway in the Florida Keys. Photo: Jack Fishman

Florida Keys residents have long been passionate about protecting the wonders of the place they call home, and those who travel from afar are often left with a sense of stewardship for this special area. The idea of protecting the unique habitats of the Florida Keys reaches back more than a century.

A Haven for Birds

The Key West National Wildlife Refuge, the first national wildlife refuge in the Florida Keys, was established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 to curtail the harvest of birds whose feathers were highly valued in the clothing industry during that time. Wading birds were threatened with extinction before this refuge began providing a safe haven for them and other threatened plant and animal species. The refuge encompasses over 375 square miles of open water and 2,019 acres of land. The Key West National Wildlife Refuge, now located within Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, protects habitat for a wide variety of birds including nesting and/or wintering populations of terns, frigate birds, white-crowned pigeons, ospreys, and great white herons. Also, the sandy beaches of the refuge are nesting habitat for the endangered Atlantic green and loggerhead sea turtles.

The Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge is a vast array of pristine, isolated keys, extending over 264 square miles of open water in the Gulf of Mexico. The habitat of these keys is mostly low mangrove islands which are not easily accessible. Established in 1938, the refuge is now located within Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and gives permanent protection to North America's largest wading bird — the great white heron. With long, graceful, snow white plumes, this color variation of the great blue heron is found only in the Florida Keys and the southern part of the Florida mainland. Rare birds, such as the white-crowned pigeon, roseate spoonbill, and the only known colony of laughing gulls in the lower Florida Keys, nest here as well.

an all white bird wades through shallow water
Great white herons (Ardea herodias occidentalis) wade in shallow water and feed on small fish, insects, reptiles, and even other birds. Photo: Kristie Killam/USFWS
A black bird with a white spot on top of its head in flight
Adult white-crowned pigeons (Patagioenas leucocephala) feed on fruit and seeds usually nest in mangroves on small offshore islands. Photo: Kristie Killam/USFWS

The Need for a Marine Sanctuary in the Keys

The Florida Keys is home to spectacular, unique, nationally-significant marine environments that play an integral role in the local economy. Warning signs about the fragile and finite nature of marine resources in the Keys were present long before the sanctuary was established in 1990. Thirty years prior, to address the demise of coral reefs in the Keys, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park was established off Key Largo as the first underwater park in the United States. Continued environmental degradation prompted the eventual designation of Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary in 1975 and Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary in 1981.

A man at a booth speaks to a visitor in front of a sign that reads National Marine Sanctuary Program Key Largo.
Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary Superintendent Billy Causey answers questions for a member of the public at an event in the late 1980s. Photo: NOAA

Throughout the 1980s, oil drilling proposals, reports of deteriorating water quality, and evidence of declines in the health of the coral reef ecosystem continued to mount. These threats, combined with several large vessel groundings, prompted Congress to act. On November 16, 1990, President George H. Bush signed into law the bill establishing Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. This new sanctuary incorporated the preexisting Key Largo and Looe Key sanctuaries to protect 3,800 square miles of Florida Keys waters.

Sanctuary Designation

With the designation of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, several protective measures were immediately put into place, such as restricting large shipping traffic and prohibiting oil exploration, mining, or any type of activity that would alter the seafloor. Anchoring on, touching, and collecting coral were all restricted within sanctuary waters.

The passage of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Protection Act in 1990 also called for the development of a comprehensive management plan. A set of public scoping meetings, followed by a series of workshops, collected input from federal, state and local interests holding knowledge of sanctuary problems. These meetings, workshops, and extensive public input laid the foundation for the first sanctuary management plan that was ultimately implemented in July 1997.

Historical Setting and Events Leading up to Designation

1955. Conservation writer, Rachel Carson, publishes "The Edge of the Sea" describing the marine biology of America's unique coastal regions, dedicating an in-depth section to the Florida Keys' marine ecosystem, which she calls America's "only coral coast."

1957. Conservationists meet in the Everglades to discuss the demise of coral reef resources for a conference that would spark discussion about creating an underwater park.

1959. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is designated, becoming the first undersea park in the United States. Its original boundary extends to a depth of 60 feet on the Atlantic side from Carysfort Reef to Molasses Reef, encompassing the coral reef tract.

1972. The Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act of 1972 is signed into law by President Richard Nixon. Today, the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries serves as the trustee for a network of underwater parks encompassing more than 620,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters from Washington state to the Florida Keys, and from Lake Huron to American Samoa.

December 18, 1975. Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary becomes the second national marine sanctuary in the United States, protecting 103 square nautical miles of coral reef habitat off of John Pennekamp State Park, from Carysfort Lighthouse to Molasses Reef.

Throughout the 1980s. A series of declines in the Florida Keys' coral reef ecosystem occur, including algal blooms in Florida Bay, massive sponge die-offs, losses in living coral cover, and seagrass die-offs. A die-off of reef fish along the outer reefs of the Keys is observed. Shrimp harvests in the Tortugas Grounds decline to record lows.

January 16, 1981. Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary is designated, protecting 5.32 square nautical miles of spur and groove coral reef located offshore of Big Pine Key. Looe Key was named for the wreck of the British frigate H.M.S. Looe, which ran aground on the reef on February 5, 1744.

1981. The first mooring buoys are installed at the frequently-visited French Reef in Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary as a means to reduce anchor damage to sensitive marine habitats, especially coral formations, seagrass beds, and submerged archaeological resources.

three people holding equipment on a boat
Mooring buoys are prepared for installation at Looe Key in the 1980's. Photo: NOAA

January 1983. A disease outbreak among long-spined sea urchins (Diadema antillarum) begins near the Panama Canal, causing widespread, rapid mass mortality event throughout the Caribbean over the next two years.

Summer 1983. Periods of low wind and high air temperature contribute to increased water temperatures and massive coral bleaching is documented along the outer reef tract of the Lower Keys.

An aerial image of a large vessel above a coral reef.
M/V Wellwood aground on a reef

August 4, 1984. The M/V Wellwood runs aground on Molasses Reef within Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary.

June 1987. The Department of the Interior releases a five-year plan to open Florida's coastal areas to oil and gas development with lease sales starting in late 1988.

July 1987. Doldrum-like weather conditions lead to massive bleaching on outer reefs throughout the Florida Keys, and later secondary impacts such as coral disease are observed.

Fall 1987. Fishing guides report areas of dead seagrass in western Florida Bay. A seagrass die-off in Florida Bay begins as dense stands of turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum) experience rapid mortality.

April 28, 1988. The Abandoned Shipwreck Act is signed into law establishing U.S. Government's title to abandoned shipwrecks within certain categories. The U.S. Government then transferred title to certain shipwrecks on state lands to state governments. This removed abandoned shipwrecks from the jurisdiction of Federal Admiralty Courts and allowed states to  protect historic shipwrecks.

November 7, 1988. Congress reauthorizes the National Marine Sanctuaries Act (P.L. 100-627) naming study areas for possible additional sanctuaries, including Alligator Reef, Sombrero Reef and American Shoal in the Florida Keys.

March 24, 1989. The Exxon Valdez oil tanker runs aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska garnering international attention for the potential of major tanker and ship groundings while killing more than 250,000 birds and covering over 1,300 square miles of ocean with oil.

October 25, 1989. M/V Alec Owen Maitland runs aground within Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary.

A large metal boat in shallow water surrounded by a boom and several smaller boats rendering aid.
M/V Alec Owen Maitland

October 30, 1989. M/V Mavro Vetranic runs aground at Pulaski Shoal in the Dry Tortugas.

November 11, 1989. M/V Elpis runs aground in Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary.

A large propellor of a grounded vessel lodged on the seafloor.
M/V Elpis

October 24, 1989. Representative Dante Fascell introduces Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Protection Act, which is sponsored in the Senate by Senator Bob Graham. The Act:

  • Designates a specified area in Florida as Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary under the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act of 1972.
  • Prohibits, with specified exceptions, the operation of a tank vessel or a vessel greater than 50 meters in length in specially-zoned areas to be avoided.
  • Provides that no leasing, exploration, development, or production of minerals or hydrocarbons shall be permitted within the sanctuary.
  • Requires the Secretary of Commerce to develop a comprehensive management plan and for regulations to be implemented.
  • Terminates all congressionally mandated studies of existing areas in the Florida Keys for designation as national marine sanctuaries.
  • Directs the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and the governor of Florida to develop a comprehensive water quality protection program for the sanctuary. Excludes such a program from the comprehensive management plan if it does not meet the purpose for which the sanctuary is designated or is otherwise inconsistent or incompatible with it.
  • Requires the Secretary of Commerce to establish an advisory council to assist with the comprehensive management plan.

November 16, 1990. George H.W. Bush signs the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Protection Act (P.L. 101-605) into law, forming a new sanctuary in the Florida Keys, the ninth such sanctuary in the system. This new sanctuary incorporated the preexisting Key Largo and Looe Key sanctuaries to protect 3,800 square miles of Florida Keys waters.