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Endangered Coral Reef Ecosystem Still Sustains Diverse Marine Life

The Florida Keys coral reef is visually dynamic in color and texture.

It's also home to an amazing assortment of reef fish including game fish and tropical species.

Some of the interesting tropical fish that rely on these structures for food and protection are the blue parrotfish, butterflyfish, angelfish, clownfish, cardinalfish, wrasses, and triggerfish.

Florida, and predominantly the Florida Keys, happen to be home to the largest living tract of coral in North America, and the third largest reef system in the world.

The reefs stretches 358 miles from the St. Lucie Inlet in Martin County, south to the Dry Tortugas National Park 70 miles south and west of Key West.

Brain Coral and Parrotfish

Spotlight Parrotfish And Large Brain Coral, Photo Credit George Cathcart

The living reefs are situated relatively close to shore, and run the length of the peninsula on the Atlantic side.

Patch reefs are found between the main reef tract and the coastline in about 9 - 20 feet of water. These small patches are often favorite Florida Keys diving spots. They also serve as a nursery to juvenile fish seeking protection from larger predator fish plus other marine life including spiny lobster and sea horses live in the protection of the reefs.

Coral Reefs are Home to Numerous Florida Fish

Florida's Great Coral Reef Is Home To Numerous Species Of Marine Life

Coral Reef Facts And Types Of Coral

The Great Florida Reef is made up of numerous species of coral polyps which form their own separate colonies and continue to build and grow through asexual budding.

Even though the individual polyps are living animals, small microscopic plants or algae reside within them. The plants and the animals relationship is mutually beneficial as they provide food sources for each other. The algae that lives within the polyps is also the agent responsible for giving the reefs their diverse and dynamic colors.

Brain Coral Are Part of the Reef Foundation

Sturdy Brain Coral Are Part Of The Reef Foundation Photo Credit Jan Derk

In essence there are 2 different types of coral. The foundation of the reefs are the stony coral. With over 60 species in the Florida Keys area, these are the living coral the reefs are built upon. Stony coral have the capability of being able to somewhat rapidly secrete calcium carbonate, which forms their harder skeleton.

The primary types of coral in this group are fire, brain, smooth starlet, elkhorn, staghorn, mustard hill, golfball, pillar, and elliptical star.

Fan Coral Are Delicately Lacey Especially When Next to Sturdy Brain Coral

Fan Coral Are Delicately Lacey Gorgonoian Coral, FKNMS, Photo Credit Steven Cook

The other coral group are the octocorals of which over 40 species are found in the Florida Keys. Also called soft coral or gorgonians, they're unable to secrete calcium carbonate. Instead, their soft bodies are physically supported by gorgonian, a collagen or horn-like substance.

Since this group is soft, they're not capable of reef building, nor can they lay the foundation for future reefs. This group is best exemplified by the delicate sea fans and sea whip corals.

Threats To Coral Reefs

Reefs are extremely delicate and coral reef destruction can be caused intentionally or unintentionally from a variety of sources. Hurricanes with strong winds and waves can pulverize them into sandy particles. Cold weather chilling the water temperatures can kill off the sensitive and delicate coral structures.

Florida Keys divers and snorkelers have been guilty of illegally chipping at and removing pieces as keepsakes. Thieves plunder large sections of coral to sell for aquariums.

Divers and fisherman have carelessly damaged reefs with their anchors. Ships also wreck upon the structures causing damage to both themselves and the corals they grounded upon. Even the invasive lionfish is proving to be destructively detrimental to the coral reef ecostystem.

Recently a new threat has emerged, slowly chipping away at the coral in the Florida Keys.

A non-native ocean sponge, the orange sponge has not yet received invasive species status. However, it's slow spreading is causing alarm as it attaches to the coral, creating holes in the reefs and then dissolving the calcium carbonate which makes up the coral.

Lionfish damage the coral reefs and kill other fish

Lionfish Threaten Coral And Other Fish,
Photo Credit Andrew David, NOAA/NMFS/SEFSC Panama City
Lance Horn, UNCW/NURC - Phantom II ROV operator

In the early 2000's, it was discovered that human waste from sewer treatment plants was primarily responsible for the white pox disease which afflicted and killed off massive quantities of the once prolific elkhorn.

Fortunately, the source of the bacteria was correctly identified, and with better sewage treatment methods, this deadly pathogen is able to be controlled.

Since the reefs are made up of small living marine animals, they're able to regrow. Depending on the circumstances and type of coral, a reef can grow from half an inch to seven inches in a year. However, it only takes a strong storm to reverse a year's fragile growth.

Coral Reef Conservation

Returning our reefs to a healthy state, and helping reefs rebuild is critical to the overall economy and even safety of the Florida Keys.

Fortunately scientists have learned different ways to regrow these organisms. Through their efforts and those of voluntourism programs, they have been successfully working on coral reef restoration to transplant coral back into areas that suffered severe damage and depletion.

Brilliant Coral Reef

Coral Reefs Can Be A Rainbow Of Colors, FKNMS

Certain coral types, such as elkhorn and staghorn were identified as endangered and have been successfully grown and transplanted into areas where they once thrived.

Aside from man's conservation efforts, nature has an interesting and exciting phenomenon you can witness. "Coral mating" occurs twice a year, during the night of the August and the September full moon when water temperature and the lunar cycle trigger the simultaneous release of eggs and sperm into the water.

Florida Keys Pillar Coral Spawning at Night

A Rare Sight Is Witnessing The Spawning Of Pillar Coral
Courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission

During coral mating, large masses are released into the water creating a dense white cloud. The sperm and eggs unite, rise to the ocean surface where the newly spawned embryos or "planulas" continue to form until they settle back to the ocean floor. Here they grow into polyps and eventually form into coral heads.

One of the greatest treasures the Florida Keys has are the dynamic and brightly colored coral reefs and tropical fish widely found throughout the region.

Queen Angelfish Adorn the Reefs

Queen Angelfish Adorn The Teefs

Whether you're on snorkeling eco tours or scuba diving Florida Keys spectacular waters, you'll find exploring these reefs will be one of the greatest experiences you'll have while on your Florida Keys vacation.

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Local Weather Zip Codes

Key Largo - 33037
Marathon - 33050
Key West - 33040