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Guide to America's National Marine Sanctuaries

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Voyage to Kure
Sharks at Risk
The Gray Whale Obstacle Course
  florida keys

Return to the Amazon
Sea Ghosts: Belugas
Call of the Killer Whale

Goliath Grouper

Featured Creature
Goliath Grouper

The goliath grouper is a member of the sea bass family and is the largest fish found on the coral reef. It can grow up to 8 feet, weigh up to 800 pounds and live nearly 50 years. Groupers are easy prey for fishermen for a variety of reasons, including the facts that they are inquisitive, fearless, slow-moving and territorial, refusing to budge from the areas they're known to inhabit. The species was over-fished close to extinction in the 1980s and has only just begun to recover since the United States enacted protection in 1990. Goliath groupers eat crustaceans, fish, octopus and young sea turtles. Predators include large fish such as barracuda, king mackerel and moray eels as well as sharks and other groupers. Learn more about this creature at theEncyclopedia of the Sanctuary (at

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

Official Web Site (at
Interactive Map of Usage Zones (at
Encyclopedia of the Sanctuary (at

FKNMS was designated a National Marine Sanctuary in 1990 by Congress. The need for protection of the Florida Keys' coral reefs was first addressed in 1963, when the world's first underwater park, the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, was established in Key Largo. In the ensuing decades, concerns continued to emerge about myriad environmental factors, including deteriorating water quality, coral bleaching and disease, population declines throughout many marine species, and ship groundings on coral reefs. These concerns eventually led to the further protection of the waters around all the Keys through sanctuary status.

What's Underwater
North America's only living coral barrier reef and the third longest barrier reef in the world (following those in Australia and Belize) lies about six miles seaward of the Florida Keys. The coral reefs are part of a fragile, interdependent ecosystem that includes mangroves and seagrasses that grow on both the ocean side and the bay side of the Florida Keys. These environments are the marine equivalent of tropical rain forests, in that they support biological diversity, are fragile and easily susceptible to damage from human activities, and are extremely valuable if properly conserved.


Diving and Snorkeling
Except in four research-only areas, swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving are encouraged throughout the sanctuary. The restricted areas total less than one square mile and require a scientific or monitoring research permit for access. Visibility is generally in the 40- to 60-foot range but can exceed 100 feet when the Gulf Stream moves close to the reefs.

Diving and snorkeling are also prohibited in the Tortugas South Ecological Reserve. Tortugas North is open to nonconsumptive diving, but visitors must first call the sanctuary to obtain a no-cost access permit.

Visitor Center
The Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center will open in Key West in September 2006. The center will feature the biodiversity of the Florida Keys and will also focus on human interaction with the environment, the management of marine protected areas, and the maritime culture and history of the area.


Research Projects

  • Coral ecologies: Projects focus on the feeding and reproduction of coral as well as factors affecting reef erosion.
  • Coral disease and bleaching: Researchers are looking at different types of bleaching and disease and the effects of ultraviolet light on bleaching, and the growth of algae on reefs.
  • Water quality: Efforts include looking into the production and release of nutrients from reefs, the impact of contaminants on Florida Bay water, and the effects of currents and upwelling.
  • Fish ecology: Scientific studies include lobster spawning and reproduction, size of fish populations, and fish disease.

Challenges Facing the Sanctuary

  • Boating in the sanctuary presents a multitude of challenges because of the associated impacts, including vessel groundings, propeller scarring, anchor damage, pollutant discharges, shoreline erosion and wildlife disturbances.
  • An issue of major concern to everyone who loves and enjoys the Florida Keys is the deterioration of the quality of water that supports the Keys' special marine environment. The health of the coral reef ecosystem is declining, and its continued existence is extremely threatened. Fishermen have voiced their concern over declining water quality for years, citing reduced catches as evidence that something is wrong.
  • The economy of the Keys is dependent upon tourism and fishing, which are, in turn, dependent upon a healthy ecosystem. A major challenge for sanctuary planners is to balance resource protection with continued use of the resources.
  • Land use planning and growth management are important issues throughout the Keys. Major concerns for the sanctuary include the destruction of wetland areas for development and the direct impacts of inadequately controlled sewage and storm water runoff that come along with growth.

Success Stories

  • Prohibited the anchoring of large ships on Tortugas Bank, bringing an end to the destruction of these deep coral reefs by massive anchors and chains.
  • Implemented the "Area to be Avoided" as a buffer zone that keeps large ships in deeper water, well away from the reef tract, resulting in a dramatic reduction in the frequency of large-ship groundings, which can cause catastrophic destruction.
  • Installed and maintained more than 400 mooring buoys at popular reefs throughout the Florida Keys, reducing anchor damage.
  • Built an education and outreach program that communicates the importance of coral reefs and their related ecosystems to children and adults, residents, visitors and those who may never see the Florida Keys.
  • Implemented a comprehensive marine zoning system that has served as an international model.
  • Produced more than 175 episodes of the half-hour television program Waterways, which airs on 23 stations, primarily public access stations throughout Florida, with a potential viewing audience of several million households.
  • Worked with the Environmental Protection Agency, the state of Florida and local partners to declare state waters of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary a no-discharge zone for boat sewage.
  • Interpreted the maritime history of the Florida Keys for residents and visitors alike by establishing the Shipwreck Trail.