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 About the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
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Description of Site
Ecological Importance
Rare / Endangered Species
Geological Features
Archaeological Features
Management Status

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
33 East Quay Road
Key West, Florida 33040
(305) 292-0311
Monday through Friday 8am - 5pm

Description of Site

The delicate chain of islands, or "keys", extending from the southern tip of Florida is internationally regarded as a tropical paradise. This perception can mainly be attributed not to the islands themselves, but to the clear, shallow waters surrounding them. These warm tropical waters are also known today as the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS). The Florida Keys and its marine environment offer unparalleled beauty and diversity. Teeming with thousands of colorful tropical fish, marine invertebrates and plants, the waters of the Florida Keys are home to the world's third largest barrier coral reef system, thousands of acres of seagrasses, and hundreds of miles of mangrove-fringed shoreline. The waters surrounding the Florida Keys have long been appreciated for their unique beauty and the abundance of the marine life they support. That world-renowned appreciation was echoed by Congress when, in 1990, they designated these waters as a 2900 square-nautical-mile marine sanctuary.

The special beauty of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary brings with it some unique challenges for protection. Every year, more than two and a half million people come to the Keys to experience the wonders of the waters. Year round, visitors and residents alike dive, snorkel, fish, boat, and swim in these waters. A system of mooring buoys, channel markers, and special marine zones is in place to assure that the diverse and delicate ecosystem of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary remains healthy for generations to come.


To protect the spectacular marine ecosystem of the Florida Keys, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Protection Act was enacted by Congress and signed into law by President Bush on November 16, 1990. The Act, first and foremost, created the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary boundaries, encompassing approximately 2900 square nautical miles, with jurisdiction up to the mean high tide line. In addition, the Act called for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the U.S. Department of Commerce to prepare a comprehensive management plan for the Sanctuary after consulting with the public and with federal, state, and local government authorities. An Advisory Council was established to act as conduit of public opinion and to assist in the development of the plan. The FKNMS Comprehensive Management Plan was developed and Sanctuary regulations went into effect on July 1, 1997. The revised Management Plan went into effect in December 2007. The entire text of the Sanctuary regulations is printed in the June 12, 1997 edition of the Federal Register. The regulations for the more recently established Tortugas Ecological Reserve are printed in the January 17, 2001 edition of the Federal register.


County: Monroe
Nearby towns or cities: Florida Keys, Key West, Marathon, Key Largo


The FKNMS encompasses 3,801 square miles of protected area consisting of the waters surrounding the archipelago formed by the Florida Keys which includes waters of Florida Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean.


The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is at the conflux of three watersheds. First, the Mississippi River watershed drains 40% of the continental United States. The Mississippi River eventually drains down into the Gulf of Mexico where those waters are then picked up by the Loop Current which can be traced passing the Florida Keys as it merges with the Florida Current (Gulf Stream). Second, the Florida Bay and the Florida Keys are the end recipients of the Kissimmee Okeechobee Everglades (KOE) watershed which drains much of the state of Florida. The third watershed affecting the waters of the Keys originates in the Caribbean, where the waters draining to the ocean are funneled through the Yucatan straight and eventually merge with the Florida Current (Gulf Stream).


Although the best known feature of the Keys marine environment is its coral reefs, the shallow waters near the shore are actually composed of a series of interconnecting and interdependent natural habitats. These include fringing mangroves and seagrass meadows as well as hardbottom regions, patch reefs and bank reefs.

When healthy, the communities of mangroves, seagrasses and corals protect and enhance one another. Upland, hardwood hammocks are equally important: they protect the soil from erosion while their decaying vegetation provides necessary nutrients to the mangrove and seagrass communities. In turn, mangroves, seagrass beds and coral reefs serve as self-repairing breakwaters to protect the hammocks--and the rest of the Keys--by absorbing the force of the waves.

Fringing mangroves filter material washed from the land, trapping debris and sediment. The remains of plants and animals are broken down by bacteria and fungi, into nutrients. Mangrove roots provide nursery grounds to to many species of fish and invertebrates. Mangrove forests near North Key Largo also are habitat for the endangered American crocodile.

Seagrass meadows grow in much of Florida Bay and the shallow waters seaward out to the reef line. They are a natural trap for sediments. The predominant turtle grasses, which happen to be particularly vulnerable to pollution, are nursery and feeding grounds for a host of attaching invertebrates and for the larvae and young of many organisms. These include shrimp, spiny lobster, sea urchins, sponges, snapper, sea trout, barracuda and grunts. Adult fish from the reefs often feed among the seagrasses, and endangered species of green sea turtles and manatees browse there regularly.

The Florida reef tract is the most extensive living coral reef system in North American waters and the third largest reef system in the world. It provides habitat, refuge, and feeding grounds for countless colorful and exotic creatures. Colonies of tiny polyps from the complex structure of coral reefs by secreting calcium carbonate. The waving forests of sea whips and sea fans in the Keys are a uniquely Caribbean feature, and are not found on reefs in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Ecological Importance
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary contains one of North America's most diverse assemblages of terrestrial, estuarine, and marine fauna and flora. Formed by significant geological, physical, and biological processes, the area is one of the most complex ecosystems on Earth, and includes mangrove-fringed shorelines, mangrove islands, seagrass meadows, hardbottom habitats, thousands of patch reefs, and one of the world's largest coral reef tracts.

The Key's ecosystem supports a diverse assemblage of species, including commercially and recreationally important, unique to the area or spatially limited due to habitat constraints.

Rare / Endangered Species

Fully one third of Florida’s endangered species call the coral reef ecosystem home for at least part of their lifespan.

Further information on the endangered, rare and threaten species of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary can be obtained from Volume II of the Final Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement. This table does not include Species of Special Concern and it does not include plant species that are threatened or endangered.

Common Name
Scientific Name
pillar coral Dendrogyra cylindrus E T
Schaus' swallowtail butterfly Heraclides aristodemus E n/a
Stock Island tree snail Orthalicus reses reses E E
Key silverside Menidia conchorum T n/a
American alligator Alligator mississippiensis SSC T (s/a)
Atlantic loggerhead Caretta caretta caretta T T
Atlantic green turtle Chelonia mydas mydas E E
American crocodile Crocodylus acutus E E
leatherback turtle Dermochelys coriacea E E
Big Pine Key ringneck snake Diadophis punctatus T n/a
Eastern indigo snake Drymarchon corais couperi T T
Atlantic hawksbill Eretmochelys imbricata imbricata E E
Key mud turtle Klinosternon bauri bauri E n/a
Atlantic ridley Lepidochelys kempi E E
Florida brown snake Storeia dekayi victa E n/a
Miami black-headed snake Tantilla oolitica T n/a
Florida ribbon snake Thamnophis sauritas sackeni T n/a
Cape Sable seaside sparrow Ammodramus maritimus mirabilis E E
piping plover Charadrius melodus T T
white-crowned pigeon Columba leucocephala T n/a
Arctic peregrine falcon Falco peregrinus tundrius E T
Southeastern American kestrel Falco sparverius sparverius T n/a
Florida sandhill crane Grus canadensis pratensis T n/a
bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus T T
wood stork Mycteria americana E E
least tern Sterna antillarum T n/a
roseate tern Sterna dougallii T T
Bachman's warbler Vermivora bachmani E E
sei whale Balaenoptera borealis n/a E
blue whale Balanoptera musculus n/a E
fin whale Balaenoptera physalus n/a E
right whale Eubalaena glacialis n/a E
humpback whale Megaptera novaeangliae n/a E
Key Largo wood rat Neotoma floridana smallii E E
Key deer Odocoileus virginianus clavium E E
silver rice rat Oryzomys argentatus E E
Key Largo cotton mouse Peromyscus gossypinus allapaticola E E
sperm whale Physeter macrocephalus n/a E
Lower Keys marsh rabbit Sylvilagus palustris hefneri E E
Florida manatee Trichechus manatus E E

State listings are taken from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.  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; n/a= information not available or no designation listed.

Geomorphic Features
  1. Gulf of Mexico
  2. Tidal Passes and Nearshore Habitats
  3. Atlantic Ocean

Adjacent geomorphic features include:

  1. Florida Bay
  2. Lower Everglades / South Peninsular Florida

The following reefs are protected by marine zones established by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary:

Ecological Reserve:

  • Western Sambo
  • Tortugas
Sanctuary Preservation Areas:
  • Carysfort / South Carysfort
  • The Elbow
  • Dry Rocks
  • Grecian Rocks
  • French Reefs
  • Molasses Reef
  • Conch Reef
  • Davis Reef
  • Hen and Chickens
  • Alligator Reef
  • Coffins
  • Patch
  • Sombrero Key
  • Newfound Harbor
  • Looe Key
  • Eastern Dry Rocks
  • Rock Key
  • Sand Key
Special Use Areas:
  • Conch Reef
  • Tennessee Reef
  • Looe Key
  • Eastern Sambo
Geological Features

The geological processes that formed the reefs and the Florida Keys as we know them today began in the Pleistocene Period. During this era, melting glaciers following an ice age raised sea level to where water covered much of the Florida peninsula and all of the area that is now the Keys. The warm temperatures and shallow waters that covered this area were ideal for coral growth. Scientists have found that the Keys developed into a nearly continuous coral reef tract from the area that is now Miami to the Dry Tortugas. Core samples show massive hard corals and point to a larger, denser coral reef system than the living reef that now lies off our shores. When the last ice age struck, about 28,000 years ago, sea levels dropped drastically, and the Keys, as well as the Florida Bay, were transformed into swamp, then dry land. Then, about 11,000 years ago, water levels moderated to about where they are now, leaving the Keys exposed and filling Florida Bay. From these ancient reef formations, two types of substrate were formed: Miami Oolite, and Key Largo Limestone. Both of these rock types are the remnants of fossil coral ecosystems, and both are extremely porous.

Archaeological Features

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary’s submerged cultural resources are unique, non-renewable remnants of the Key’s colorful maritime and submerged prehistoric past. Submerged cultural resources are defined as those "possessing historical, cultural, archaeological, or paleontological significance, including sites, structures, districts, and objects significantly associated with or representative of earlier people, cultures, and human activities and events" (15 CFR 922.2 (c)). The Sanctuary’s submerged cultural resources encompass a broad historical range from the European Colonial Period to the Modern Era. Because of the Keys’ strategic location on early European shipping routes, the area’s shipwrecks reflect the history of the entire period of discovery and colonization. The unique geological history of the Florida Keys with its treacherous shallow and hidden reef, set the stage for a colorful human history. Shoals, sand flats, storms, and the coral reef itself have stymied many navigators through the centuries, and taken their toll on many ships. Since the 1500's over 800 documented shipwrecks have occurred around the reefs and sand flats of the Florida Keys. These vessels, which now rest upon the ocean floor, carried a wide variety of cargoes throughout the centuries, cargoes that ranged from settlers, slaves, and soldiers, to merchandise and treasure. During the early twentieth century the "wreckers" of the keys salvaged virtually everything they could find, leaving behind little original wrecks. These wrecks and the stories that surround them give the Keys a rich and exciting maritime culture. In addition to the human aspect, these shipwrecks, often referred to as "windows to the past" also serve as artificial reefs, providing an anchor and abode for the brilliant and diverse life that inhabits these waters.


More than three million visitors each year come to the Keys by both air and auto. A great majority of these tourists come to see or catch fish and other marine wildlife, contributing up to $1.2 billion to the economy of the Florida Keys. These visitors directly support charter boats for diving, snorkeling, sailing and fishing, dive shops, bait and tackle shops, marinas, restaurants, hotels, motels, and camp grounds, and, indirectly, a multitude of businesses from gas stations to barber shops.

Commercial fishing is the second largest industry in the Keys. Some of the most important commercial species are spiny lobster, stone crab, pink shrimp, mackerel, grouper and snapper. Collectors of tropical fish and other marine life also profit from the reef environment. The commercial fleet supports about 1,200 families, which is close to 5 percent of the Monroe County's population. Stock Island alone lands 7 million pounds with a dockside value of $24 million — that's 5 percent of Florida's total landings and 13 percent of total value.

In 2006, Monroe County was ranked the fifth most valuable port in the nation, with a dockside value of about $54.4 million. This figure does not include retail sales and profits made by wholesalers who marketed seafood products worldwide. It's reasonable to predict that seafood and related industries earned upwards of $70 million. This does not take into account the millions of dollars of shrimp caught off Key West and landed at other ports around the Gulf of Mexico.

Management Status

The Key Largo and Looe Key National Marine Sanctuaries were established in 1975 and 1981 respectively and were incorporated into the new Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Management plan.

The State of Florida and the federal government have been working together for over 34 years to protect the marine environment in the Florida Keys. This effective partnership continues today in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Such a combined effort provides a comprehensive ecosystem management approach for the long-term protection of diverse natural resources in Keys waters. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, is the federal agency that oversees the National Marine Sanctuary program. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) is the state partner involved in FKNMS management. Together these agencies cooperate and consult with each other on how to ensure the protection of FKNMS resources.

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Protection Act lays out certain rules for the FKNMS:

  • Oil and gas development are prohibited; and
  • Commercial vessel traffic is restricted within an internationally designated "Area to be Avoided."

The Act also places particular emphasis on improving the water quality throughout the area. The US Environmental Protection Agency and the Governor of Florida, in consultation with NOAA, were directed to prepare a water quality protection program which were included in the comprehensive management plan.

The 14 Action Plans within the FKNMS Management Plan include: Science Management and Administration, Waterway Management, Education/Outreach, Enforcement, Mooring Buoys, Regulatory, Research and Monitoring, Maritime Heritage Resources, Damage Assessment and Restoration, Water Quality, Operations, Evaluation, Volunteer and Marine Zoning.


Revised Management Plan- December 2007 (http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/pdfs/2007_man_plan.pdf)
Strategy for Stewardship: Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Final Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement Volumes 1-3 (http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/management/welcome.html)

Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center in Key West, FL-  http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/eco_discovery.html

Various posters, maps and brochures can be obtained by contacting the Sanctuary office.

Please see the FKNMS website forand further information:

Last updated: May 02, 2012

  3900 Commonwealth Boulevard M.S. 235 Tallahassee, Florida 32399 850-245-2094
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