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 About the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve
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Description of Site
Ecological Importance
Rare / Endangered Species
Geomorphic Features
Archaeological Features
Management Status


Pamela Sweeney
Biscayne Bay Environmental Center
1277 NE 79th Street CSWY
Miami, FL 33138-4206
(305) 795-3486
(305) 795-3470 FAX

Description of Site

Two Aquatic Preserves are named for Biscayne Bay. The first was founded in 1974 as the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve. Its boundaries include the inshore waters and natural waterways connected to Biscayne Bay from the Oleta River in the north to the Card Sound Road bridge between the mainland and northern Key Largo, with Biscayne National Park removed. This leaves two separate areas of state management; the northernmost area is bounded by the headwaters of the Oleta River south to Cape Florida on the east, and just south of Chicken Key and the Deering Estate on the west. The southernmost section begins just south of the Arsenicker Keys on the west and Broad Creek on the east and ends south of Little Card Sound (at the Card Sound Road bridge).

The barrier islands of Miami Beach, Fisher Island, Virginia Key, and Key Biscayne form the eastern border of the northern section. The residential developments along the mainland shore and the Miami central business district form the western border. The construction of causeways and the Port of Miami and other dredged islands have subdivided the northern preserve into eight basins. Dredge and fill projects have altered the northern bay with channels too deep for seagrass growth. Despite the development that has taken place in the northern bay there still are areas with abundant seagrass beds and mangrove fringe forests in certain areas. State, county, and city parks provide a variety of access points and possible recreational activities within Biscayne Bay. Swimming, kayak rentals, historic tours, and picnicking are a few of the activities that visitors and residents can enjoy at Oleta River State Park, the Barnacle Historic State Park, and Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park in the northern part of the Aquatic Preserve.

The southern part of the preserve consists of Card Sound and Little Card Sound, located between the southeast mainland of Florida and the northern end of Key Largo, in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. This portion of Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve is part of a larger area of protected marine environments and is included within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary boundaries. Biscayne National Park is located to the north. Protected areas include mangrove creeks and islands of mangroves and hammocks managed by the Crocodile Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, and the Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park. The mainland shoreline is primarily undeveloped and is lined with mangroves. On the seaward side of the Sound, access to the offshore areas and water circulation are restricted by the presence of islands (or keys) with few tidal inlets. There is an exposed shallow ridge of limestone adjacent to the western shoreline where water depths are less that six feet at low tide. The submerged ledge extends more than three or four miles from shore and generally supports lush seagrass and hard bottom communities. In contrast to the urbanized northern portion of the preserve, Card Sound has the distinction of being one of the most pristine areas in coastal South Florida.

The second aquatic preserve named for Biscayne Bay was founded as the Biscayne Bay - Cape Florida to Monroe County Line Aquatic Preserve in 1975. Much of the submerged lands and islands originally included within the boundaries are now within either Biscayne National Park or within the larger Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve. The original boundaries began off-shore of southern Key Biscayne, extended out to the edge of Florida state waters and then went southward to the county line dividing Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. The boundary returned northward along the Intra-coastal Waterway except where it included a series of shallow banks called the Featherbeds. The preserve concluded back at southern Key Biscayne including the waters of Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park. Today, the remnant of this Aquatic Preserve which is not included in the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve or Biscayne National Park is approximately 4,000 acres off the eastern shore of Key Biscayne.


In 1974 the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve was established by the Florida Legislature "to be preserved in an essentially natural condition so that its biological and aesthetic values may endure for the enjoyment of future generations" according to its designation in Chapter 258.397, Florida Statutes. Its boundaries, management authorities, and rules are established in Florida Administrative Code Chapter 18-18.

The Biscayne Bay-Cape Florida to Monroe County Line Aquatic Preserve is described in Florida Statute 258.39(11) . The Legislative intent for establishing this aquatic preserve is stated in Section 258.36, F.S.: "It is the intent of the Legislature that the state-owned submerged lands in areas which have exceptional biological, aesthetic, and scientific value, as hereinafter described, be set aside forever as aquatic preserves or sanctuaries for the benefit of future generations."


Counties: Miami-Dade, Monroe
Nearby City: Miami, Florida
Adjacent to U.S. Highway 1


Both aquatic preserves together have approximately 67,000 acres of submerged lands; The Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve�s 63,000 acres are divided between the northern section with approximately 49,000 acres and 14,000 acres in the southern section. The Biscayne Bay Cape Florida to Monroe County Line Aquatic Preserve has approximately 4,000 acres.


The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) controls much of the surface water flow into Biscayne Bay through its system of canals, levees, and control structures constructed as part of the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project. Biscayne Bay receives freshwater surface flows from seventeen surface water management basins through twelve major coastal structures. The watershed is composed of the drainage basins east of the Everglades, including portions of southern Broward and northern Monroe counties and includes "a marine ecosystem of about 428 square miles and a drainage area of about 938 square miles, including 350 square miles of wetlands" (Alleman, 1995).


SFWMD scientists reported that Biscayne Bay supports diverse biological communities including submerged aquatic, coastal wetland and intertidal, and coastal upland habitats in the Biscayne Bay Surface Water Improvement and Management Technical Supporting Documents (SWIM TSD) (Alleman, et al., 1995). Submerged aquatic habitats consist of seagrasses, hardbottom assemblages (with solitary hard and soft corals, sponges and algae), unconsolidated sediments, and open water communities such as plankton, and nekton including bottle-nosed dolphin and fishes. Plankton appears to form the basis of the food chain in northern Biscayne Bay, whereas seagrasses and algae provide the primary food source in southern Biscayne Bay. Coastal wetland communities include mangroves and salt marshes. These plants provide habitat for numerous shoreline organisms, protection from erosion or storm damage, and an important source of food in the bay. Other intertidal communities include riprapped shorelines. Coastal upland plant communities consist of hammocks, pinelands, and dune vegetation, and provide vital protection to the bay from the effects of upland runoff and pollutant loading.

Ecological Importance

The rich fauna found in Biscayne Bay results from the diverse habitats found in the bay. In addition to fish directly important to humans, such as snook, the mangrove and estuarine areas support a diverse collection of other fishes that serve as links in food webs which benefit the entire Biscayne Bay ecosystem.

As summarized in SWIM TSD, seagrass habitat is especially prevalent in Biscayne Bay and the corresponding fish fauna includes bonefish, ladyfish, pompano, permit, spotted sea trout, silver perch, hogfish, Nassau grouper, red grouper, black grouper, gag, yellowfin mojarra, and crevalle jack (Alleman, et al., 1995). Grassbeds also serve as a food source for the Florida manatee and as nursery grounds for several important species of fish and invertebrates.

SWIM TSD scientists reported that at least 512 fish species occur in the bay as documented by de Sylva (Alleman, et al., 1995). At least some of this diversity is due to the overlap of the Atlantic and the Caribbean marine provinces. Fish species north of Cape Canaveral are typical of temperate waters, while Florida Keys fish species are tropical. SWIM TSD scientists concluded that, "Biscayne Bay is part of a transition area where fish species of both kinds are well represented. There is some seasonal fluctuation, with tropical species more prevalent in the summer and temperate species partially replacing them in the winter." (Alleman, et al., 1995).

SWIM TSD scientists reported that "An undetermined but very large number of invertebrate species live within Biscayne Bay" (Alleman et al, 1995). Benthic surveys tallied over 800 species including over 150 species of shrimp, crabs, and lobsters. Many of these species are commercially harvested including blue crab, stone crab, spiny lobster, penaeid shrimp, and sponges.

Within hardbottom communities, the most common sponges are the loggerhead sponge (Spheciospongia vesparia) and the basket sponge (Ircinia campana); Alleman, et al., 1995). Other commercial sponge species also occur in the central and southern portions of the Bay. The importance of Biscayne Bay to juvenile spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) has resulted in a large portion of the bay (roughly from Cape Florida south through Card Sound) to be designated as the Biscayne Bay-Card Sound Spiny Lobster Sanctuary, as described in Chapter 68B-11, Florida Administrative Code.

Sea turtles that occur in Biscayne Bay may include the Atlantic green turtle (Chelonia mydas), the Atlantic hawksbill (Eretmochelus imbricata), the leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), the Atlantic ridley (Lepidochelys kempi), and the loggerhead (Caretta caretta; Alleman, et al., 1995). SWIM reports, �Green turtles and loggerheads occur regularly in the bay, whereas hawksbills seem to be less common, there, at least in recent years (circa 1995). Hawksbill nests have been recorded along the outer keys of Biscayne Bay and leatherback nests have been recorded on Miami Beach and Key Biscayne" as reported by Connally in the SWIM TSD (Alleman, et al., 1995). "Green turtles and loggerheads regularly forage within the bay. The predominantly vegetarian green turtle feeds in grassbeds, whereas the more omnivorous loggerhead finds a varied diet of sponges, molluscs, crustaceans, sea urchins and plants in hard bottom communities" (Alleman, et al., 1995). Both the diamondback and the mangrove terrapin are discussed from the 1950�s, but are not common today (Alleman, et al., 1995). Other noteworthy reptiles that are associated with the bay are the American alligator (in freshwater tributaries) and the American crocodile, a threatened species. 

Many Biscayne bird "species are permanent residents of the bay, other species migrate through the area, and still others are winter or summer residents" (Alleman, et al., 1995). SWIM scientists wrote that "Biscayne Bay is a major stopover in the autumn migration of North American shorebirds. Several species of shorebirds overwinter in Biscayne Bay, making extensive use of shorelines and intertidal areas" according to Wattendorf (Alleman, et al., 1995). Major bird rookeries within the bay include the islands of Bird Key in the northern bay and Chicken Key in the central bay, Other rookeries are the mangrove shorelines from Matheson Hammock extending south through Biscayne National Park and along the western shores of Key Biscayne and Virginia Key (Alleman, et al., 1995).

Rare / Endangered Species

Common Name
Scientific Name
common snook Centropomus undecimalis n/a n/a
smalltooth sawfish Pista pectinatus    
mangrove rivulus Rivulus marmoratus SSC n/a
American alligator Alligator mississippiensis SSC T (s/a)
Atlantic loggerhead turtle Caretta caretta caretta T T
Atlantic green turtle Chelonia mydas mydas E E
American crocodile Crocodylus acutus E E
Eastern indigo snake Drymarchon corais couperi T T
Atlantic hawksbill turtle Eretmochelys imbricata imbricata E E
gopher turtle Gopherus polyphemus SSC n/a
Kemp's ridley Lepidochelys kempi E E
Miami black-headed snake Tantilla oolitica T n/a
roseate spoonbill Ajaia ajaja SSC n/a
limpkin Aramus guarauna SSC n/a
piping plover Charadrius melodus T T
white-crowned pigeon Columba leucocephala T n/a
little blue heron Egretta caerulea SSC n/a
reddish egret Egretta rufescens SSC n/a
snowy egret Egretta thula SSC n/a
tricolored heron Egretta tricolor SSC n/a
Arctic peregrine falcon Falco peregrinus tundrius E E
American oystercatcher Haematopus palliatus SSC n/a
bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus T T
wood stork Mycteria americana E E
osprey Pandion haliaetus SSC n/a
brown pelican Pelecanus occidentalis SSC n/a
least tern Sterna antillarum T n/a
Florida panther Felis concolor coryi E E
West Indian manatee Trichechus manatus E E

State listings are taken from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission or as with plants Florida Department of Agriculture.  Federal listings are taken from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. E= Endangered; T= Threatened; T (s/a)= Threatened due to similarity in appearance; SSC= Species of Special Concern; UR= Under review; n/a= information not available or no designation listed; C=Commercially exploited

Geomorphic Features

Biscayne Bay lies in a depression between two limestone ridges. The Atlantic Coastal Ridge forms the western boundary and the Key Largo Ridge underlies the barrier islands to the east (Alleman, et al., 1995).

Archaeological Features

Native peoples� use of Biscayne Bay dates back as far as 10,000 years before present. Their use is documented in archaeological sites such as the Cutler Fossil Site and the Miami Circle. The Tequesta people lived along Biscayne Bay during the time of European contact. Two centuries after Europeans first visited, the last of the Tequestas left Florida for Cuba. After this, two new groups of Creek origin came to live in the Everglades and along the coast. These groups, the Seminoles and the Miccosukee both have reservations within the interior of South Florida today.


For anyone who would like to explore Biscayne Bay, there are a diversity of recreational and commercial in-water activities, including power boating, sail boating, catamaraning, canoeing, sculling, water skiing, jet skiing, hang gliding, swimming, windsurfing, snorkeling, diving, and fishing.

The Bay is also important navigationally as part of the Intra-Coastal Waterway and home to a deepwater port, Miami Harbor, one of the busiest cargo and passenger ports in the world.

The Bay provides for a variety of educational and research activities. Several marine science and education facilities utilize the Bay and include: University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (RSMAS), Florida International University, Barry University, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration�s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory and Southeast Fisheries Science Center, and the Miami Seaquarium. On the secondary level, Maritime and Science Technology (MAST) Academy is a local magnet school located on Virginia Key and is dedicated to students interested in marine science. In addition to these institutions, several governmental agencies as well as scientists from remote locations conduct research and education programs pertaining to Biscayne Bay.

Management Status

Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserves consist primarily of submerged lands and the water column over such lands as well as publicly owned islands. Those submerged lands within the boundaries of the preserve that are privately owned or leased or which have been deeded to the County or municipalities are also part of the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve. Both preserves have been designated as Outstanding Florida Waters, Class III.

The preserves are managed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Office of Coastal and Aquatic Managed Areas. Major management issues involve the protection of the resources within the preserves in accordance with F.S. 258.397 and F.A.C. 18-18. In addition to monitoring and reviewing projects which may impact the resources of the preserves, efforts are also directed towards research and education. Monitoring activities within the preserve include an extensive water quality monitoring program and smaller benthic resources program administered by SFWMD and Miami-Dade County Department of Environmental Resource Management (DERM).


Alleman, R. W. 1995. An Update of the Surface Water Improvement and Management Plan for Biscayne Bay. Planning Department, South Florida Water Management District. West Palm Beach, Florida.

Alleman, R. W., S. A. Bellmund, D. W. Black, S. E. Formati, C. A. Gove, and L. K. Gulick. 1995. An Update of the Surface Water Improvement and Management Plan for Biscayne Bay. Technical Supporting Documents and Appendices. (Ed: Mulliken, J. D. and J. A. VanArman). Planning Department. South Florida Water Management District. West Palm Beach, Florida.

deSylva, D. P. 1984. A Bibliography and Index of the Biscayne Bay Ecosystem. University of Miami School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, 91 pp.

Florida Department of Natural Resources. 1991. Management Plan (cabinet draft, not adopted) For Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve Card Sound. Division of State Lands, 180 pp.

Metropolitan Dade County Board of County Commissioners. 1986. Environmental Resource Management Department and Metropolitan Dade County Planning Department. 1986. Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve Management Plan (draft, not adopted). Metropolitan Dade County, Miami, Florida, 348 pp.

Last updated: April 06, 2015

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