FL Coral Reefs

Coral Reefs
Florida is the only state in the continental United States to have extensive shallow coral reef formations near its coasts. These reefs extend from near Stuart, on the Atlantic coast, to the Dry Tortugas, west of Key West, in the Gulf of Mexico. The most prolific reef development occurs seaward of the Florida Keys. The reefs here are spectacular and rival those of many Caribbean areas. Approximately 6,000 coral reefs are found between Key Biscayne and Dry Tortugas.

Florida Reef Facts
Florida's coral reefs came into existence 5,000 to 7,000 years ago when sea levels rose following the Wisconsin Ice Age. Reef growth is slow; estimates range from one to sixteen feet every 1,000 years.

Stony corals are the major reef architects. Polyps, the living portion of the coral, extract calcium from seawater and combine it with carbon dioxide to construct the elaborate limestone skeletons that form the reef backbone. Coral polyps are united into colonies. An individual colony grows one-half to seven inches a year, depending on the species. Corals start life as free-living larvae that later settle on the sea floor and develop into massive, sedentary limestone formations.

Though reef corals are classified as animals, there is, in fact, a complex of microscopic plants that lives within the animal tissues (a symbiotic relationship). The animals benefit from the energy that the plants provide through photosynthesis. The plants are protected within the coral tissues and gain nutrients from animal wastes. These tiny plants are called zooxanthellae and are responsible for much of the color seen in reef corals.

Coral reefs are specialized habitats that provide shelter, food and breeding sites for numerous plants and animals. They form a breakwater for the adjacent coast, providing natural storm protection. They are very important to southeast Florida's economy. Recreational and commercial fishing annually bring many millions of dollars to the state. The attractions of the coral reef communities contribute greatly to the total value of Florida's fisheries.

Coral reef development occurs only in areas with specific environmental characteristics: a solid structure for the base; warm and predictable water temperatures; oceanic salinities; clear, transparent waters low in phosphate and nitrogen nutrients, and moderate wave action to disperse wastes and bring oxygen and plankton to the reef.

The tropical setting in Florida's reefs attracts millions of visitors annually. In order to minimize human damage to the corals, everyone's cooperation is needed. The reefs are well marked on navigation charts; if you are not familiar with the area, refer to the charts.

Every year careless boaters run aground, destroying coral colonies that are hundreds of years old. Seen from the surface, reefs have a unique golden-brown color. If you see brown, you may be about to run aground. Be cautious when anchoring your boat. Do not deploy the anchor directly in coral. Usually there are sandy areas close by; anchor in the sand. Many popular reefs off Key Largo and at Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary have special anchor buoys for mooring. In these areas, tie up to the buoys, rather than anchoring. Do not dispose of trash, bilge washings and other debris on or near the reefs!

When diving or snorkeling, look, but do not touch! Do not grasp, stand or sit on living coral. You may damage the coral and hurt yourself in the process. All coral is protected. It is against the law to collect, harvest or sell Florida corals in state and adjacent federal waters.
Florida coral reefs, with whom we share the seas, are significant, unique natural resources. Be a responsible visitor - insure the continued vitality of Florida's coral reefs.
This page was derived from a brochure developed by the Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Marine Research Institute under a grant from the NOAA, Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management.