NPCA's Marine Protection Programs: Corals and Coral Reefs

Corals and the reefs they create provide feeding grounds, nurseries, and habitat for a third of all marine life. Coral reefs are an invaluable component of the entire marine ecosystem and protect shorelines from erosion by dissipating the force of storms’ destructive wave action. Coral reefs support many local economies in the Sun Coast Region that are dependent on tourism and fisheries.

Corals are animals that build a skeleton using calcium from seawater. The animal itself is made up of smaller polyps that are connected together with tissue. Coral reefs form as generation after generation of coral polyps live, build and die, creating vast strongholds for many other plants and animals. Corals that build reefs have zooxanthellae, an algae that lives in the tissue of the coral and provides nutrients to the coral. Some corals also have nematocysts, external cells that are used to catch food. Corals are very sensitive to the conditions in which they live, including light, water movement, temperature, water clarity, salinity, and depth, among other factors. These conditions need to be in balance for corals to thrive.

The Florida Reef Tract is the world’s third largest reef and wraps from the north of Biscayne National Park on Florida’s eastern shore all the way to Dry Tortugas National Park off the state’s southwestern tip.

Extensive coral reef ecosystems can be found in 13 national parks. Six of these are in the Sun Coast Region:

Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve

  • 10 types of coral reef and hard bottom habitats
  • 41 species of coral, 86 species of sponges, and 200 species of fish
  • A scientific coral reef monitoring program is being conducted to study coral bleaching and disease.

Buck Island Reef National Monument

  • This barrier reef is composed primarily of threatened elkhorn/staghorn coral. For more information on elkhorn coral and threats to it, see this Park Science article.

Biscayne National Park

  • Contains about 4,000 patch reefs
  • About 50 species of coral, 325 species of fish and invertebrates

Dry Tortugas National Park

  • 29 species of stony coral with numerous sponges and gorgonians (hot link to vocab)
  • 280 species of fish

Virgin Islands National Park and Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument

  • Contains numerous fringing reefs that surround the island
  • 50 species of coral and 302 species of fish, numerous soft corals and sponges

Threats

Coral reefs around the globe are being threatened by climate change, deteriorating water quality, and disease. Human activities such as coral collection, boat groundings, improper anchorage, and careless diving and snorkeling are also taking a toll. Our oceans absorb mass amounts of carbon dioxide, making them great “carbon sinks.” However, they are absorbing so much carbon dioxide that their pH is decreasing and ocean waters are becoming more acidic. This acidification threatens to deprive corals of their ability to create and maintain their calcium carbonate skeletons, as acid dissolves calcium carbonate.

Another major concern for corals is water quality and disease. Pollution, ranging from large-scale agricultural runoff causing algae blooms, to seemingly harmless sunscreen worn by snorkelers, inhibits coral’s ability to absorb sunlight, contributing to the declining health of our corals.

Marine Work

To help counter the growing threat to coral reefs, scientists worldwide have stepped up efforts to monitor and repair the damage.  In the Sun Coast Region, some of the programs and guidelines created in the parks are helping shape research in the scientific community, including:

  • Biscayne National Park’s Coral Nursery and Rejuvenation Program, a program that grows and transplants healthy corals.
  • Virgin Islands National Park created a coral reef monitoring manual that is internationally recognized for information on methods and techniques.
  • Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, created in 1990 to protect the 2,800 square nautical miles around North America’s only living barrier reef.
  • Biscayne National Park is in the process of updating its General Management Plan and is considering the establishment of a no-take marine reserve to provide much-needed protection for the park’s spectacular but severely threatened coral reef ecosystems.
  • The Research Natural Area (RNA) of Dry Tortugas National Park, established in 2007, is a 46-square-mile no-take ecological preserve that provides a sanctuary for species impacted by loss of habitat and overfishing. The Tortugas Ecological Reserve of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is located adjacent to the RNA and together, these marine reserves contribute to a region-wide effort to strengthen marine protection. They will help ensure the protection of both marine and terrestrial ecosystems and provide outstanding public education and scientific research opportunities.

Learn More

[MAP] The Florida Reef Tract includes Biscayne National Park, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Dry Tortugas National Park:


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