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Benthic Habitat Mapping of Florida Coral Reef Ecosystems to Support Reef Conservation and Management

This project began in January 2005 and was completed in March 2014

NOAA mapped the shallow-water (less than 25 meters deep) coral reef ecosystems of the Florida Keys to support research, conservation, and management activities of state and federal agencies, including the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program.

Why We Care
The shallow-water coral reef ecosystem of southern Florida is important for several reasons. The coral reef ecosystem, which extends 170 miles (275 kilometers) from the Dry Tortugas (~ 70 miles west of Key West) to Jupiter Inlet (near Jupiter, Florida) provides protection from hurricane-driven waves and storm surge. The coral reef ecosystem, consisting of the coral reef tract, patch reefs, mangroves, and seagrass beds, provides critical habitat for endangered and threatened marine mammals, sea turtles, birds, fish, and other marine and terrestrial organisms. The Florida Keys region also is a vital commercial and recreational fishery that generates an estimated $4 billion in total revenue and 70,000 full or part time jobs annually in the south Florida (Johns et al., 2001).

What We Did
Since 2005, NOAA has mapped over 3,000 square kilometers of coral reef ecosystem found in the Florida Keys. The Florida Keys are part of the larger south Florida coral reef ecosystem, which covers over 9,000 square kilometers and extends from Martin County, Florida through Florida Bay and the Florida Keys, out to the Dry Tortugas. Other portions of the south Florida coral reef ecosystem have been mapped by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, several south Florida counties, the U.S. National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

NOAA’s Florida Keys coral reef ecosystem map also has been incorporated into the Unified Florida Reef Tract Map (v 1.1), which provides a consistent mapping framework for management, monitoring, and characterization of the entire south Florida reef ecosystem from Martin County through the Florida Keys to the Dry Tortugas. Prior to its completion, only an inconsistent patchwork of smaller map pieces had been available. The Unified Florida Reef Map integrates existing coral reef ecosystem maps and now covers the entire 9,000 square kilometers of coral reef ecosystem.

What We Found
NOAA mapped approximately 3,871 square kilometers of Florida Keys seafloor habitats. Seagrass was the most common habitat found and covered 2,084 square kilometers (54 percent) of the total area. Algae was the second most common habitat, covering 951 square kilometers (25 percent) of the total area. Live coral covers 1.15 square kilometers (0.02 percent) of the total area. While every effort was made to map all 3,871 square kilometers, water quality, poor water clarity, and other factors prohibited being able to map 169 square kilometers (4 percent) of the 3,871 square kilometer area. NOAA is continuing to work with partners to ensure the remaining 4 percent of the map is completed. In order to ensure the habitat map is as useful as possible to resource managers and researchers, NOAA had the thematic accuracy of the Florida Keys coral ecosystem map independently tested. A link to the Accuracy Assessment of NOAA’s Florida Keys Habitat Map is provided below.

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