Divers working on a device on the seafloor
Placing any object on the seafloor within sanctuary boundaries requires a permit. Photo: NOAA

Through the issuance of permits, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary authorizes projects that would otherwise not be allowed because they are prohibited by sanctuary regulations. The types of activities able to be permitted by the sanctuary typically include research on natural and cultural resources, education, and activities that support sanctuary management, among others. To be granted a permit, the activity described in the application must meet review criteria outlined in NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries regulations.

Special conditions found in sanctuary permits ensure that approved projects are allowed to occur with minimal negative impact to the marine environment. The sanctuary issues more than 400 permits every year to private and public institutions, non-governmental organizations, and individuals to further understanding about sanctuary resources and qualities.

Many other agencies have authority over activities that occur in the marine waters of the Florida Keys. Activities conducted under sanctuary permits will often require additional permits or approval from one or more of these other agencies:

  • Florida Department of Environmental Protection
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • U.S. Coast Guard
  • Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
  • Monroe County

Be sure to check with local, state, and federal agencies and municipalities for their requirements. Permits issued by the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries are not valid until the applicant obtains all other necessary permits, authorizations, and approvals from the relevant federal, state, and local regulatory agencies. 

Permit Timelines

Please visit the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries permits page for more information and to access application materials for each type of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary permit. Applications for research, education, and special use permits must use the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries applications from the link above and follow the provided instructions. Questions regarding national marine sanctuary permit applications should be directed to Dr. Harrison Albert, permit coordinator, at

The timelines for research and non-research permits below are based upon necessary requirements in the permit review process, including the required federal consultation process and determining whether a proposed activity meets the established review criteria in sanctuary regulations. These timelines will necessarily be extended for any sensitive or complicated requests, requests for collection of listed or other notable species (e.g., coral species), or requests which may require the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries to undertake certain National Environmental Policy Act or other consultation requirement requests (e.g., requesting to enter an area to be avoided, projects with potentially adverse or unknown environmental impacts, or proposals with novel or untested methods). Applications that may require NOAA to prepare an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement prior to issuance of a permit will typically require 12 months or more to process.

For all permit requests, the sanctuary will make a reasonable effort to meet the requested effective date; however, please note that there is no guarantee a permit application will be processed by the requested effective date.

Permits for Research Activities

Because of the volume of permit requests received by Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary annually, a prioritization process is in place that is based on the highest needs of sanctuary managers to inform resource protection. Sanctuary managers will make the determination on whether a specific project falls within priority topics. The current priority research topics are (in order):

  1. Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD): monitoring/surveillance, response/intervention, and research
  2. Coral restoration and restoration research (i.e., factors that contribute to restoration success)
  3. Coral larval research (e.g., settlement, genetics)
  4. Ocean acidification and climate change
  5. Coral disease research other than SCTLD

Permit applications addressing one or more of the  research needs listed above should be submitted at least 30 days in advance of the requested effective date.

Applicants proposing projects specific to priority topic #2, coral restoration and restoration research, should additionally review the following documents:

Applicants proposing projects that involve stony corals should additionally review the Guidance on Permit Applications for Activities that Impact Florida Stony Corals.

Permit applications for research activities that do not fall within the current priority topic list should be submitted at least 90 days in advance of the requested effective date.

Permits for Non-Research Activities

Permit applications for non-research activities must be submitted at least 120 days in advance of the requested effective date.

These activities include:

  • Educational courses or collections

  • Entering the area to be avoided

  • Bait fishing activities

  • Public activities that include discharge of material or deploying equipment on or altering the seafloor such as:

    • Firework displays
    • Ashes scattering*
    • Boat races
    • Underwater events (e.g. pumpkin carving, Easter egg hunts, music festivals) Commercial photography or filming

*Note that permits for ashes scattering should be submitted at least 14 days in advance of the ceremony date.

Permits for Archaeology/Historical Resources and Construction Projects

Permit applications for archaeology/historical resources and construction projects must be submitted at least 90 days in advance of the requested effective date.

Questions and Completed Applications

Please direct questions and completed applications for nearshore construction projects to Steve Werndli, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary enforcement coordinator.

Please direct questions and completed applications for historical resources permits to Matthew Lawrence, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary archaeologist.

Please direct all other questions and completed applications to Dr. Harrison Albert, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary permit coordinator.

A man on a cement floor working on a device

Research & Education Permits

These pressure sensors measure wave attenuation at a Mission: Iconic Reefs site off Key West. Their placement on the seafloor has been permitted by the sanctuary.

Large powerboats storm past a triangle-shaped buoy

Special Use Permits

Special events like offshore powerboat races utilize large buoys to mark course boundaries and organizers must obtain permits for anchoring them to the seafloor.

Boats on a two story rack at a marina

Nearshore Construction Authorizations

The construction of a marina requires nearshore construction authorization.

A man casts a net from the bow of a small boat

Baitfish Permits

Fishing for bait requires a permit in some areas of the sanctuary.

A brightly-colored fish on the seafloor

Lionfish Removal

Lionfish are an invasive species in Florida, and their removal from the local marine environment is a priority for the sanctuary.

A red grouper next to a coral head

Tortugas North Access Permits

Tortugas North Ecological Reserve protects spectacular coral reef formations and stopping a vessel here requires a permit.

Looking down on a diver above a pile of rocks

Historical Resources Permits

Sanctuary regulations prohibit removal of historic resources. Learn the dos and don'ts.