Protecting Florida Keys corals and the coral reef ecosystem

Mountainous star coral in the sanctuary. Large colonies of slow-growing mountainous star coral helped build the reefs of the Florida Keys and resemble underwater mountain chains.

The national marine sanctuary system has a long history of protecting coral in the Florida Keys. Recognizing the environmental and economic significance of the world’s third largest barrier reef found just a few miles offshore, NOAA established Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary in 1975 and Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary in 1981. As pressures to coral reefs became more acute, Congress designated Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in 1990 to protect the coral reef environment from south of Miami through the Dry Tortugas.

Every living coral in the Florida Keys has been protected with federal regulations since 1997, when Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary put rules in place to prohibit the taking or injuring of corals within its boundaries. That year the sanctuary also set aside special areas known as marine zones that provided further protections.

Elkhorn coral in the sanctuary. The branches of fast-growing elkhorn coral provide important habitat for fish. Populations of this iconic coral have declined across the Caribbean due to disease, bleaching and storms.

In order to protect corals from damage by boat anchors, in 1981 the sanctuary pioneered a mooring buoy system that is now used around the world. More than 470 mooring buoys are maintained by the sanctuary at popular reef and shipwreck sites Keys-wide, preventing damage to corals.

Since corals need clean, clear water to thrive, the sanctuary, state of Florida and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency prohibit the discharge of any pollutants, as well as discharge from marine sanitation devices, into sanctuary waters. All the waters of the sanctuary are a no-discharge zone. In 1994, the sanctuary’s Water Quality Protection Program was created to understand how humans impact water quality and how those changes affect sanctuary habitats.

The sanctuary works closely with researchers from federal and state agencies, universities and aquariums to better understand changes to the coral reef environment. Long-term research and monitoring programs help determine how management actions are helping improve those

Pillar coral in the sanctuary. Pillar corals grow upward, forming what look like fingers or columns. Their polyps are typically extended during the day, giving the coral a furry appearance.

Working closely with partner agencies, municipalities and individuals, the sanctuary’s permitting program ensures that any nearshore construction – such as pier or seawall repairs – are done with little to no impact on coral resources. More than 10,000 coral colonies have been rescued from such construction projects since 2003.The rescued colonies have been either reattached, used in restoration after boat groundings, or shared with research or education partners. The sanctuary has also permitted programs to grow corals in underwater nurseries and transplant them to degraded reefs.

When coral is damaged by boat groundings, trained sanctuary restoration biologists respond and may reattach the coral colonies using special cement that hardens underwater.  Enforcement officers and sanctuary officials also have the ability to issue fines and penalties for damages to corals.

The sanctuary is currently reviewing its rules and marine zones in a multi-year public process to determine whether new or additional regulations are required to address changing environmental conditions and continue to protect corals for the future.