The key to the Keys? Restoring coral

Thriving coral reefs are one of the most important components of a healthy ocean. In the Keys, Cheeca Rocks is an excellent example.


James St. John | CC-BY-2.0
Boulder Star Corals in Caribbean waters.

You’re about a mile offshore and all you hear is the sound of crashing waves and seagulls overhead. You put your snorkeling gear on and hop into the warm, crystal clear waters of Florida’s coast and about ten feet below you is an underwater utopia – Cheeca Rocks. 

Smack dab in the middle of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS), off the coast of Islamorada and one mile southeast of Upper Matecumbe Key, visitors to Cheeca Rocks are treated to a kaleidoscope of underwater life. Here snorkelers and ocean-goers commonly find amazing wildlife such as colorful tropical fish, abundant crustaceans and a wide array of coral species. 

Managed by The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Cheeca Rocks is a small patchwork reef system – grown from the ocean floor and isolated from other reefs – and is the only Sanctuary Preservation Area (SPA) in the Upper Keys Region that protects inshore patch reefs. Reefs like these are important to the ocean ecosystem. They are hotspots for biodiversity and globally support around 25% of marine life

Currently, Cheeca Rocks is small, about 0.05 square miles in size. It contains a wide variety of species of coral, like massive brain corals and one of the largest populations of star corals, a species listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Due to its ability to support these species, which have struggled elsewhere in Florida, scientists and sanctuary managers designated Cheeca Rocks as one of seven SPAs in their Mission: Iconic Reefs, which is NOAA’s plan to restore over three million square feet of critical coral habitats and maintain biodiversity in the ecosystem.

According to NOAA, not only is the site home to significant populations of structure-forming coral, “Cheeca Rocks appears to be particularly resilient to coral bleaching, coral disease, and other stressors, and the reef has been used by sanctuary scientists and others to study the effects of climate change.” This is big news because estimates place healthy coral cover in Florida at less than 5% of their original size.

In Mission: Iconic Reefs, NOAA outlined a plan to outplant 30,000 additional brain and star corals within the 12,000 square meters in and around the SPA, and some groups have already gotten started. Coral Restoration Foundation™ (CRF™), for example, has been working to restore this reef site since 2020, with two highly successful waves of boulder coral outplants. To some degree, this has helped solidify the coral species here, but it’s clear that more can be done. 

Recently NOAA released its Restoration Blueprint, which outlines a proposed  plan to restore the Keys. For Cheeca Rocks, the proposed changes will more than double the protected area. 

Obviously, this is a huge step in the right direction but more can be done. The expansion does not incorporate an area northwest of the existing zone, which contains at-risk populations of brain and star coral. Also, there is no plan to establish a contiguous boundary for this whole location. Instead, the proposed new area contains three separate locations in close proximity to each other. 

Were NOAA to just propose a single-larger zone that also includes the northwest portion, it would better protect the species that travel between them, support coral spawning, and prevent future damage to more of the reef system. It should do so. 

The Keys’ ecosystem contains over 6,000 known species, and to best support this awesome array of ocean life, it all starts with the coral. 


Ian Giancarlo

Protect Our Oceans Campaign, Advocate, Environment America

Ian works to protect our oceans and marine ecosystems. Ian lives in Denver, where he enjoys triathlons, hiking, and local breweries in his free time.

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