Wildlife Health
Florida Keys

goliath grouper in the Floriday Keys
Fish species, such as the Goliath Grouper, are "key" species within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Credit: FKNMS, NOAA

Why is it a concern?

The sanctuary provides many opportunities for wildlife observation, thus the 3 million annual visitors to the region results in a high level of visitation that can have significant direct and indirect effects on the ecosystem. Both motorized (e.g., party boats, jet skis and other personal watercraft) and non-motorized vessels (e.g., kayaks and canoes) are used throughout the sanctuary, often for viewing marine mammals and seabirds. With the multitude of opportunities for observation come the potential for wildlife disturbance including flushing birds from their nests or roosts and harassing marine mammals. Other tourism activities such as diving and snorkeling can also impact living resources. The former Key Largo and Looe Key National Marine Sanctuaries included prohibitions on damaging coral in response to increasing threats by recreational visitors. In addition to physical impacts, some wildlife species undergo behavioral changes after they are fed by well-intentioned humans. Sharks, some fishes, and numerous bird species (most notably pelicans and herons) are routinely fed fish, fish carcasses, and other items for the purposes of attraction and viewing. Likewise manatees are fed lettuce and given fresh water from dockside hoses. In turn, these species develop unnatural behavioral patterns leading to unsafe interaction with humans or vessels (e.g., sharks and manatees). Wild birds often suffer from punctured internal organs from digesting fileted fish carcasses at marinas and docks as they are discarded into the nearshore waters.

Measures of condition and health for "key" wildlife species in marine sanctuaries is important in determining the likelihood that those species will persist or recover and continue to provide vital ecosystem functions and services. Key wildlife species can be keystone, foundational, indicator, and/or other focal species.  Measures of health (condition) would include growth rates, fecundity, recruitment, etc., pathologies such as disease signs and parasite loads, and observations of normal ‘wild' behavior of motile species. For example, Caribbean spiny lobsters are a key species in the sanctuary because they are heavily exploited by both commercial and recreational fisheries, and subject to the first known pathogenic virus of spiny lobsters.  Similarly, the highest densities of sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico region are observed in waters surrounding the Florida Keys and an estimated 50% to 70% of sea turtles in Florida Bay and the Florida Keys are affected by these diseases.  The long-spined sea urchin Diadema antillarum is considered a keystone species, because it was historically one of the most important invertebrate grazers on coral reefs in the Florida Keys, and in combination with herbivorous fishes, helped control the abundance of algae on reefs. Abundance of this species has declined severely due to massive die offs occurring in the 1980s. Lastly, corals are also considered a key species as they provide the framework and structure for many other species of invertebrates and fish.  Coral disease has been implicated in the demise of a number of reef-building species and coral habitats throughout the Keys and reefs have been in decline due to white band disease and several bleaching events.

Overview of Research

Research conducted by Sanctuary scientists and partners provides critical information to address existing and emerging resource conservation and management issues. The Overview of Research highlights some, but not necessarily all, of the research activities completed or ongoing at the Sanctuary.

Project Name PI and contacts Links

Coral disease and condition cruises



Sea Turtles

Inwater research group and Florida's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute


Rapid assessment and monitoring of coral reef habitats in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

Steven Miller, Mark Chiappone, Leanne Rutten – NOVA Southeastern University



Marine Ecosystem Event Reponse and Assessment (MEERA)

Cory Walter


Florida Reef Resilience Program

The Nature Conservancy


Science Needs and Questions

The best available science is used by Sanctuary scientists and managers working to address priority resource conservation and management issues. As priorities change and new issues emerge, each Sanctuary develops new science needs and questions and works with partners to address them.

  • What can be done to reduce the prevalence of diseases affecting "key" species (e.g., sea turtles, corals, marine mammals)?
  • What impact will changing sea levels have on animal health and protection in the Florida Keys?
  • What impact will changing ocean chemistry have on animal health and protection in the Florida Keys?
  • What impact will increased sea surface temperatures have on animal health and protection in the Florida Keys?
  • How will climate change effect seabird breeding success (e.g., change foraging or rearing behavior of adults)?

Education and Outreach Material

Please refer to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary website to learn more about education and outreach materials.


Behringer, D.C., M.J. Butler, J.D. Shields. 2006. Avoidance of disease by social lobsters. Nature 441(421).

Butler, M.J., J.H. Hunt, W.F. Herrnkind, M.J. Childress, R. Bertelsen, W.C. Sharp, T.R. Matthews, J.M. Field, H.G. Marshall. 1995. Cascading disturbances in Florida Bay, USA: cyanobacteria blooms, sponge mortality, and implications for juvenile spiny lobsters Panulirus argus Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 129:119-125.

Cox, C. and J.H. Hunt. 2005. Change in size and abundance of Caribbean spiny lobsters Panulirus argus in a marine reserve in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, USA. Mar Ecol-Prog Ser 294:227-239.

Delgado, G. A., C. T. Bartels, R. A. Glazer, N. J. Brown-Peterson, K. J. McCarthy. 2004. Translocation as a strategy to rehabilitate the queen conch (Strombus gigas) population in the Florida Keys. Fish. Bull. 102: 278-288.

Ene, A., M. Su, S. Lemaire, C. Rose, S. Schaff, R. Moretti, J. Lenz, L.H. Herbst. 2005. Distribution of chelonid fibropapillomatosis-associated herpesvirus variants in Florida: molecular genetic evidence for infection of turtles following recruitment to neritic developmental habitats. Journal of Wildlife Diseases 41(3):489-497.

Foley, A.M., B.A. Schroeder, A.E. Redlow, K.J. Fick-Child, W.G. Teas. 2005. Fibropapillomatosis in stranded green turtle (Chelonia mydas) from the eastern United States (1980-98): Trends and associations with environmental factors. Journal of Wildlife Disease 41:29-41.

Fourqurean, J.W. 2009. FY2008 Annual report of seagrass monitoring in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Contracts: NOAA -NA04NOS4780024, NA06NOS54780105; EPA X97468102-7.

Fourqurean, J.W. and M.B. Robblee. 1999. Florida Bay: a history of recent ecological changes. Estuaries 22(2B):345-357.

Furman, B.T. and K.L. Heck. 2008. Effects of nutrient enrichment and grazers on coral reefs: an experimental assessment. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 363:89-101.

Hunt, J. and W. Nuttle. 2007. Florida Bay Science Program: a synthesis of research on Florida Bay. Fish and Wildlife Research Institute Technical Report TR-11. 148pp.

Levitan, D. R. 1988. Algal-urching biomass responses following mass mortality of Diadema antillarum Phillipi at St. Johns, U.S. Virgin Islands. J. Exp. Mar. Bio Eco. 119:167-178.

Longley, W.H. and S.F. Hildebrand. 1941. Systematic catalogue of the fishes of Tortugas, Florida. Carneg. Inst. Wash. Publ. 535(34)1-331.

McDaniel, C.J., L.B. Crowder, J.A. Piddy. 2000. Spatial dynamics of sea turtle abundance and shrimping intensity in the US Gulf of Mexico. Conservation Ecology 4, 15.

Miller S.L., D.W. Swanson, M. Chiappone. 2002. Multiple spatial scale assessment of coral reef and hard-bottom community structure in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Proceedings of the Ninth International Coral Reef Symposium. Volume 1:69-74.

Miller S.L., M. Chiappone, L.M. Rutten. 2008. Large-scale assessment of marine debris and benthic coral reef organisms in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary – 2008 Quick look report and data summary. Center for Marine Science, Univ. North Carolina-Wilmington, Key Largo, FL. 271pp.

Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. 2011. Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Condition Report 2011. U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Silver Spring, MD. 105 pp.

Porter, J.W. and O.W. Meier. 1992. Quantification of loss and change in Floridian reef coral.

Rutten, L.M., M. Chiappone, D.W. Swanson, S.L. Miller. 2009. Stony coral species diversity and cover in the Florida Keys using design-based sampling. Proceedings of the 11th International Coral Reef Symposium, Ft. Lauderdale: 800-804.

Ruzicka, R., K. Semon, M. Colella, V. Brinkhuis, J. Kidney, J. Morrison, K. Macaulay, J.W. Porter, M. Meyers, M. Christman, J. Colee. 2009. Coral Reef Evaluation and Monitoring Project Annual Report. NOAA/NOS MOA-2001-683 (Amendment No. 004)/7477. 111pp.