Injury Assessment

An aerial view from nearshore waters with tan color illustrating shallow area where an m-shaped gouge is cut
Dramatic prop scars are the aftermath of a boat that was underway in shallow water. Photo: FWC

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 Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary waters. 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 GPS devices and computer mapping software. Photo, video, and other scientific documentation is used to determine the types and extent of living coral or seagrass damage and the amount and type of seafloor or structure impacted.

These assessments aid in Injury Assessment actions which can seek compensation for the damages from those who caused it. Assessments are also the first step in creating a plan to restore the injury.

Preventing Damage

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
  • Take the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary free Boater Education Course to sharpen your local knowledge and skills on the water

NOAA's Damage Assessment, Remediation and Restoration Program (DARRP)