A watery wonderland is at risk

From manatees to reef fish, the Florida Keys deserves more protection


coral with fish

Visitors to the Florida Keys have long marveled at the sea turtles, manatees and other wildlife that call the continental United States’ largest coral reef home. Today, this amazing sea life is threatened by speeding boats, fishing and rising ocean temperatures.

But now, we have an opportunity to turn the tide.

For people who haven’t had a chance to get to know Florida’s reef, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is one of America’s national treasures. Seagrass beds host slow swimming manatees, coral reefs teem with reef fish, and sharks and rays travel long distances to make regular visits.

A scorpionfish hides in the seagrass. Photo: NOAA

The Keys’ future may not hold such vibrant scenes. In the last four decades, the Keys has lost nearly 90% of its coral cover, and water pollution and boat propellers threaten the Sanctuary’s shallow waters that are havens for manatees, sea turtles and more.

To turn the tide and ensure a better future for America’s barrier reef, we need to reduce human impact on the Keys’ ocean habitats. Doing so will give this national treasure a fighting chance.

Opportunity to turn the tide 

Right now, the Biden administration is considering a plan to increase protections for the Florida Keys. Sanctuary managers released a draft management plan, called the Restoration Blueprint, in the Fall of 2019, and are in the process of deciding what parts of the proposal they will implement. 

To protect the ocean life we all love, we need the Biden administration to take bold action and deepen protections for more of the Keys’ most sensitive habitats.

They should start by:

1. Preventing propeller scars and wildlife scares in the Keys’ shallow, sensitive habitats by slowing boats down in shallow waters throughout the Sanctuary.  Speeding boats can damage sensitive seagrass meadows that blanket vast areas of the Sanctuary by gouging the bottom. To reduce this risk, the plan should limit speeds to no wake in some areas and along sensitive shorelines, create no engine zones, and mark transit channels where they exist on electronic charts.

Aerial views near Tavernier Creek taken in 1996 and 2014 show significant shallow water habitat recovery due to protections designated in 1997. Credit: Curtis Kruer

2. Protecting important habitat connections from the shore to the deep sea, to help us better understand what protections are needed to preserve the natural ecosystems. The Sanctuary should fully protect shoreline to deep reef zones at Boca Chica in the Lower Keys, Carysfort Reef in the Upper Keys, and the Tortugas Corridor, which will create an important connection between the nearby ecological reserves and the Dry Tortugas National Park. These fully protected ecosystem slices will allow sanctuary managers to better understand what is needed to preserve and restore each ecosystem (mangroves, seagrass, coral) that is used by marine life at different life cycle stages.

Carysfort Lighthouse. Photo: Nancy Diersing/NOAA

3. Ensuring that we are studying and protecting healthy, deep coral reefs by adding the Pulley Ridge coral gardens to the Sanctuary boundaries. By expanding Sanctuary boundaries to include Pulley Ridge, NOAA would protect a cooler, deeper and healthier coral ecosystem that may one day help rebuild nearby populations of shallower corals of the same species in the core Sanctuary and national park impacted by warming waters, storm damage, and coral disease.

We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a genuine difference to one of America’s most amazing ocean places. That’s why thousands of our members added their name to a petition urging action, and why Environment America engaged our network of state groups to join the movement to protect this national treasure. 

The Florida Keys deserve our attention. That’s why we’re standing up for the amazing ocean life that has inspired generations of Americans. 

Diving in the Sanctuary. Photo: Greg McFall/NOAA


Kelsey Lamp

Director, Protect Our Oceans Campaign, Environment America Research & Policy Center

Kelsey directs Environment America's national campaigns to protect our oceans. Kelsey lives in Boston, where she enjoys cooking, reading and exploring the city.

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