South Florida Coastal Marine Ecosystem
The biologically diverse domain of the South Florida Coastal Marine Ecosystem (SFCME) and its watershed lies at the intersection of three large marine ecosystems (Gulf of Mexico, Southeast U.S. Continental Shelf, and Caribbean Sea). This candidate area includes the Florida Reef Tract, which supports more than 6,000 species, is one of the world’s largest coral reef formations, and is the only barrier reef tract in the continental United States. The 2.4 million acre Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) contains not only barrier reefs, thousands of scattered patch reefs, and other hardbottom habitats, but also 1.4 million acres of seagrass, mangrove-fringed shorelines, and mangrove islands. Florida Bay and Biscayne Bay further expand the seagrass area, making it the largest documented continuous seagrass community in the northern hemisphere. SFCME habitats provide food and shelter to thousands of species of marine plants and animals, including over 50 species recognized as endangered or threatened by either Federal or State law. NOAA has considerable trust resources in the south Florida area, including not only the FKNMS but also fishery species (especially reef fish, spiny lobster, pink shrimp, and stone crab), marine mammals, and endangered and threatened species, such as sea turtles and several endangered or threatened species of fish (e.g., smalltooth sawfish), seagrass (Johnson’s seagrass), and seven species of coral.
The SFCME is downstream from the Greater Everglades watershed. While the hydrologic system of the watershed has been greatly altered over the past century, it is still highly interconnected, and changes in water inputs to one location affect water flows elsewhere. Water management in the Everglades affects the quality of water going to estuaries, too. The quantity, quality, timing, and distribution of fresh water to the coastal marine ecosystem strongly influence its capacity to support and sustain recreational and commercial activities such as scuba diving, fishing, and other water-oriented tourism that are the mainstays of the south Florida economy.
SFCME habitats are impacted by overfishing, coral bleaching, coral disease, seagrass die-off, algal blooms, invasive species, beach loss, beach renourishment, dredging, and direct damage by vessels, fishing gears, and intensive recreational use, as well as by hurricanes and other storms. Restoration efforts must address water pollution, unnatural extremes of freshwater inflow, and other pressures associated with being downstream from a major agricultural area, dynamic urban and tourist center, and center of international shipping and commerce. NOAA offices and their partners are presently addressing some of these issues throughout the SFCME. Although many governmental agencies are involved in the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, only NOAA is focused solely on impacts to coastal waters from the broader watershed restoration underway as part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project (CERP).
Proposed Habitat Conservation Objective
NOAA’s objective in the SFCME is to conserve and restore marine habitat structure and function, restore the productivity of fisheries, protect and recover protected species, restore biological diversity, and provide the natural foundation for sustainable ecologic and economic growth. Although the efforts to restore the broader watershed are multi-agency, the SFCME is a NOAA responsibility and showcases the efforts of multiple NOAA Line Offices.
Potential to Fulfill Habitat Blueprint Outcomes
The SFCME is nominated as a candidate habitat focus area because of the richness and vulnerability of the area’s natural resources, the unique role NOAA plays in the SFCME area, the highly collaborative cross-Line Office structure of NOAA’s involvement, and the availability of baseline data in selected SFCME subareas. Implementation will be performed by means of a geographically phased approach. The initial phase will focus on developing mitigation strategies in collaboration with Biscayne National Park to reduce further degradation of water quality in Biscayne Bay.
Biological, water quality, and physical monitoring in the SFCME by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) is providing the basis for ecological indicators and performance measures to use in CERP in an adaptive management process to protect and improve the ecological function of these coastal systems.
OAR, in partnership with Florida Sea Grant, is describing ecosystem services of coastal marine ecosystems with consensus building conceptual models integrating ecological, social, and economic elements and using ecosystem models of Florida Bay to integrate ecosystem risk analysis into south Florida regional science and management planning.
NMFS is conducting field and laboratory studies to develop scientific techniques for coral nursery culture and restocking. Studies include Acropora monitoring, recovery characterization, larval reproduction, and evaluation of the effectiveness of reef restoration.
NMFS is collecting Reef fish Visual Survey data and providing it to stock assessment scientists to support collaborative single species fishery stock assessments and determination of Annual Catch Limits.
The National Ocean Service is updating the FKNMS Management Plan based on recommendations recently provided by stakeholder advisory groups and is conducting outreach to inform and engage the public and other partners to enhance resource protection.