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Florida Reefs: One of the World's Most Fantastic and Threatened

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Florida Reef tract is one of the world's most fantastic and threatened coral reef systems. It includes four reefs: Dry Tortugas, Ten Thousand Islands, John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, and Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary.

Along with other U.S coral reefs, these sites provide habitat for a tremendous diversity of marine life, including sponges, corals, fish, and invertebrates, as well as nesting sea turtles and endangered manatees.

Florida Reefs cover about 800 square miles in southwest Florida, but experts say that less than 5% of these reefs are alive today. This blog post will discuss a few interesting facts about Florida reefs and explore the struggles it’s facing today. Keep reading to discover more about this fragile yet stunning ecosystem.

Coral reef and School of Masked Butterfly Fish

A Quick Overview of Florida Reefs

Florida reefs (also known as Florida Reef, Great Florida Reef, Florida Coral Reef, Florida Keys Reef Tract, or Florida Reef Tract) came to existence about 11,000 years ago when the sea levels rose after the last Ice Age. The reef lies a few miles on the Florida Keys coastline, and it’s about 4 miles (6 to 7 kilometers) wide, 170 miles (270 kilometers) from Fowey Rocks, east of Soldier Key to the south Marquesas Keys.  The reef stretches approximately 360 miles (579.36 kilometers) from St. Lucie Inlet in Martin County to Dry Tortugas National Park to the west of the Florida Keys. Generally, there are over 6,000 individual reefs in Florida’s ecosystem.

About two-thirds of the Great Florida Reef lies within Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Biscayne National Park. The reefs stretching from the marine sanctuary to the north of Biscayne Park are managed by the Coral Reef Conservation Program (CRCP) under the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. On July 1, 2018, the Florida Legislature renamed the Southeast Coral Reef Ecosystem Conservation of Florida to the Kristin Jacobs-Coral Reef Ecosystem Preservation Area.

The most spectacular and densest reefs with the highest water clarity are found at the Key Largo coastline (in and beyond the famous John Pennekamp Coral Reef Park) and Elliot Key. The bays and sounds between the mainland and the Florida Keys tend to have higher turbidity, wider temperature variations, and lower salinity than the water in the open sea. The sounds between Keys let salty water from the bays run onto the reefs curbing their growth.

Coral Reef and Tropical Fish in Sunlight

Types of Reefs

Generally, the atolls, barrier, and fringing reefs are the three main reefs found worldwide. Florida’s Coral Reef resembles the barrier reefs, but they’re relatively closer to the shore and lack the shallow coastal lagoons typically found in barrier reefs. With that said, Florida’s Coral reef is often known as the “barrier bank reef.” The Florida reef system also includes the patch reefs, which typically grow in shallow water between the reef and land.

Corals in Florida can be categorized into two main classes: stony corals and octocorals (sea whips, sea fans, among other soft corals). Over 45 species of stony corals and 35 octocoral species are found along the Great Florida reef. Each species lives in a distinct colony with a different shape. Marine sponges are also popular within Florida’s coral reef community, and over 70 species can be found in Florida Reef.

Historically, the brain, elkhorn, and star reefs are Florida’s reef-building corals. The brain coral is dome-shaped with folds, waves, and ridges resembling those of a human brain. Elkhorn and its look-alike coral (staghorn) have branchlike projections resembling the antlers of Elk and stag animals. Star coral is dome-shaped with a distinctive star pattern on its surface caused by the accordion-like folds on its polyp caps. However, the stony corals are the primary reef architects constructing the intricate limestone skeletons that create the reef backbone.

Aerial view of Longboat Key town and beaches in Manatee and Sarasota counties in Florida

The Artificial Reefs

The term artificial reefs refer to a wide variety of man-made materials deliberately placed on the sea surface to attract marine life and recreational purposes such as fishing and diving. While there are regulations that prohibit depositing materials on the ocean floor, the Florida National Marine Sanctuary has approved the development of artificial reefs within the state of Florida. Currently, there are more than 300 synthetic reef permits around the Floridian coast, with approximately 61 of them located within the sanctuary waters.

What are the Biggest Threats Facing Florida Reefs?

The threats that lurk are divided into two categories, including local and global threats. They all present a specific set of challenges that result in life-altering effects on Florida Reefs.

Local Threats

Many coral reefs grow in the shallow waters across the shore, making them particularly vulnerable to various human activities. This eventually results in threats such as:

  • Physical damage
  • Coral harvesting
  • Overfishing

Global Threats

The top threats to Florida Coral Reef aren’t limited to local perils but also worldwide. Below are the principal global coral reef threats:

  • Coral bleaching is mainly caused by changes in ocean temperatures due to climate change.
  • Pollution mainly caused by sedimentation, pathogens, nutrients, trash, and microplastics.


Most people know that Florida has a lot of magnificent beaches, but a few realize the state also has some fantastic reefs. These reefs are one of the world’s most threatened ecosystems and make up a considerable percentage of all coral reefs in the US. This article explores everything you need to know about Great Florida Reef the main threats it encounters.

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