Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
2011 Condition Report

Photo of ocean and clouds

Summary and Findings

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is one of the largest marine protected areas in the United States, encompassing 2,896 square nautical miles (9,933 square kilometers). It was designated by Congress and exists under federal law, and became effective in state waters with the consent of the state of Florida. Marine zones for multiple uses, including 24 highly protected "no-take" areas (6% of the sanctuary), have been in place since 1997. The sanctuary helps protect more than 6,000 species of marine life, including the nation's only bank-barrier coral reef that lies adjacent to the continent, and one of the largest seagrass communities in this hemisphere. An estimated 400 underwater historical sites also lie within sanctuary waters, 14 of which are listed on the Department of the Interior's National Register of Historic Places.

The Florida Keys and their environs have a long history (>100 years) of exploitation, thus many pressures on sanctuary resources are chronic, and to some degree cumulative. A historical perspective of sanctuary biodiversity suggests that the populations of many higher-trophic-level species, such as marine mammals and predatory fishes, were dramatically reduced by hunting and fishing prior to the sanctuary's designation. Today, pressures on the resources include commercial and recreational fishing, disturbances to wildlife, coastal development, harmful algal blooms, marine debris, vessel groundings, the introduction of non-indigenous species, and vessel traffic. Human-driven factors such as climate change, sea level rise and ocean acidification are large-scale issues that may also affect sanctuary resources.

Generally, the status and trends of the resources protected by Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary reflect the inherited condition of a system that has been heavily exploited during the past century, more so than the relatively short time frame that these resources have been managed at the current geographic scale. For example, many of the historically abundant species (e.g., green turtles) and biogenic habitats had already been severely altered or reduced when the sanctuary was designated. Thus, resource managers are working to conserve pieces of the former system so that it can be restored to an improved state. However, understanding the degree of change in biodiversity that has occurred over time and how the coral reef ecosystem functioned in a "pre-exploitive" state can help managers and stakeholders identify realistic ecological and socioeconomic targets for maintaining or improving ecosystem services. For example, there are positive signs that some ecosystem services are responding to recent management actions, most notably in the form of recovering fish spawning aggregations, and increasing sizes and abundances of economically important fisheries species inside the larger ecological reserves.

The current management plan for Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary was released in December 2007, and it contains a number of management actions that address current issues and concerns. The plan stresses an ecosystem-based approach to management, which requires consideration of ecological interrelationships not only within the sanctuary, but within the larger context of the Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic ecosystems. The management plan includes 14 action plans that will guide sanctuary management for the next few years.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

  • Congressionally designated on Nov. 16, 1990, as a national marine sanctuary
  • 2,896 square nautical miles (9,933 square kilometers)
  • Surrounds the Florida Keys community of more than 72,000 year-round residents and 3-3.3 million annual visitors. The "functional population" (number of people in the Keys on an average day) ranges from 115,000 to 117,000 during the winter season and 101,000 to 104,000 during the summer season
  • Utilizes over 900 mooring buoys and boundary buoys to protect corals and seagrass from anchors and guide public use
  • Approximately 60% of the sanctuary is state of Florida waters, and 40% is federal waters
  • Shares boundaries with three national parks (Everglades, Biscayne, and Dry Tortugas National Parks)
  • Overlaps four national wildlife refuges, six state parks, three state aquatic preserves, and two previously designated national marine sanctuaries (Key Largo, designated in 1975, and Looe Key, designated in 1981)
  • Shares trusteeship of marine resources with the state of Florida, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, and NOAA Fisheries Service
  • Includes mangrove, seagrass, hardbottom, and coral reef habitats in coastal and oceanic waters
  • Home to more than 6,000 species of marine life
  • Approximately 1,700 islands with a combined shoreline length of 1,815 miles (2,920 kilometers)
  • Marine zones for multiple uses, including 24 highly protected "no-take" areas (6% of the sanctuary)
  • An "Area to be Avoided" codified into sanctuary regulations prohibits ships larger than 50 meters in length, except in corridors into Key West Harbor
  • Extensive education and outreach, research, monitoring, and law enforcement programs
  • Contains an estimated 400 underwater historical sites, 14 of which are listed in the Department of the Interior's National Register of Historic Places