Boaters beware: Florida Keys waters are tricky

Take the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Boater Education Course to help protect the Keys

By Gena Parsons

April 2019

It’s hard to resist the lure of the uniquely beautiful waters surrounding the Florida Keys. But beware: boating in the waters around these islands is like nowhere else on Earth. It is all at once glorious and dangerous, for both you and the area’s fragile ecosystems.

But a little education can go a long way. A new free online boater education course developed specifically for the Florida Keys is available to those who want to protect themselves, their vessel, and the precious marine resources of the Florida Keys. This course is specific to boating within Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and was created to complement basic boater safety training. The course is also available in Spanish.

“The sustained health of the nearshore marine environment is vital to the tourist-based Florida Keys economy,” says Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary superintendent Sarah Fangman. “Disturbance and direct impacts by boats contribute to declines in habitat that is essential for birds, fish, and other animals, and, ultimately, the economic well-being of this spectacular chain of islands.”

two people on a boat in motion
Navigating Florida Keys waters requires knowing when the seafloor may come up to meet you. Photo: Will Benson

Why a Keys-specific course?

In the Keys, often when you leave the dock, the water gets shallower before it gets deeper. Sandbars, coral reefs, and seagrass beds pose obstacles. Fishermen, wildlife, and waterfront residents prefer not to be disturbed. An anchor can do decades of damage. One mistake can be costly.

Add to the mix the complex marine zones and regulations of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and education becomes a must for any boater.

Lack of local boating knowledge contributes to the destruction of habitats that are critical to sustaining the world-class fishing and diving for which the Keys are known. Hardbottom communities and seagrass meadows provide important feeding and nursery areas for commercially- and recreationally-important fish, as well as for protected species like manatees and sea turtles. Birds forage on tidal flats, rest on sandbars, and nest on small mangrove islands. When boaters disturb or damage these habitats, it can have serious ramifications for the animals that depend on them.

More than 300 groundings are reported within Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary every year, and many more go unreported. Nearly 80 percent of those groundings impact fragile seagrass habitat. Grounded boats and misplaced anchors also cause several damage to corals, which are among the slowest growing organisms in the ocean.

All these factors and more make Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary a unique boating environment, full of wonder and in need of care.

seagrass and wide sandy areas
Prop scarring depletes habitat for fish and other marine life. Boaters face fines of up to $100,000 for marine resource injuries caused by groundings and prop scarring. Photo: NOAA

What’s in the course?

Do you know what to do if you accidentally ground your boat in seagrass? How to navigate the backcountry? Where to anchor within Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary waters?

This new course informs boaters about natural and historical resources along with the marine zones and regulations designed to protect them. It includes strategies for responsible boating and stewardship of the precious marine ecosystem that drives the economy and the local way of life in the Florida Keys. Through the course, you’ll learn:

What to do if you ground in seagrass: Reaching for the throttle is much more costly to you and the environment than reaching for the radio and calling for help. Habitat injury from boat propellers can result in federal penalties to cover assessments and restoration. That’s added to the expense of salvaging and repairing your vessel. The boater education course examines the cost of a bad decision and offers advice to minimize damage to your vessel and your wallet.

Where the backcountry is and how to navigate it: The Florida Keys backcountry presents the greatest challenge for boaters with shifting sands, rapidly falling tides, and protected wildlife. Dotted with small islands, the shallower waters host an abundance of bird species like herons, egrets, roseate spoonbills, ospreys, and pelicans. Wildlife Management Areas, a type of marine zone used by Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuge Complex, keep out motorized watercraft and institute closings during nesting season, and it’s important to know what to expect.

a bird wading on a tidal flat
Tidal flats are dinner tables for wading birds. Wildlife Management Areas are zones that keep motorized watercraft from getting too close. Photo: NOAA

Where to safely anchor: Regulations in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary forbid anchoring on coral or in seagrass. At the most popular reef sites, you’ll find mooring buoys as a required alternative to tossing out an anchor. More than 800 buoys are available throughout the sanctuary, and help conserve the highly-diverse marine environment.

How rules are enforced: Law enforcement partners patrol sanctuary waters to enforce state and federal regulations. It’s common to be approached by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers checking fishing licenses and catch. The NOAA Office of Law Enforcement, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Coast Guard partner to police Keys waters. The Monroe County Sheriff’s Office also works from both the water and the shores.

two boats on the water
Laws in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary are enforced by the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. Photo: Gena Parsons/NOAA

Educate yourself to protect the Keys for future generations

Navigating the complicated waters of the Florida Keys challenges even the most seasoned mariner. Planning is key to an enjoyable boating day. It’s always important to plan ahead, be aware of your boat’s draft, check the tide chart, and know what you want to do and where you are allowed to do it.

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Boater Education Course encourages safe and responsible boating. In less than one hour, you learn the important role you play in preserving this special place for generations to enjoy. That’s time well-spent.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary developed this voluntary boater education course in partnership with Indiana University’s Eppley Institute for Parks and Public Lands. The course development was funded through a Water Quality Protection Program Special Studies grant administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with additional support provided by the National Parks Conservation Association.

Gena Parsons is the communications and outreach manager at Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.