In United States, the only state to have extensive formation of shallow coral reefs, is Florida. The reefs are formed very close to the coasts of Florida and form the habitat for numerous animals and plants, the prominent being the snapper and spiny lobster along with other recreational and commercial marine species. The coral reefs of the Florida Reef Tract (FRT) stretch across 358 miles and span the area from the Dry Tortugas National Park to Florida Keys to the St. Lucie Inlet in Martin County. Almost two thirds of the FRT area is under protection by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS). The reefs that cover the north part of the coastal region are protected by Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) along with Coral Reef Conservation Program (CRCP) and Southeast Florida Coral Reef Initiative (SEFCRI). According to ecologists, Florida corals were formed around 5000 to 7000 years ago when the sea levels increased after the Ice age came to an end.
Three different types of coral reefs are found worldwide namely fringing reefs, atolls and barrier reefs. The Florida coral reefs are categorized as barrier reefs. But since they are very close to the coastline, they are devoid of the shallow inshore lagoons which are the prominent features of almost all the barrier reefs. Hence Florida corals are more commonly known as bank reef. Another type of reefs commonly found in Florida corals are the patch reefs that is located in between the shallow waters and the barrier reefs. The size of the patch reefs is generally small matching a small home or a back yard. The highlighting feature of Florida Reef Tract is the presence of more than forty five stony coral species and thirty seven octocorals. More than 70 species of marine sponges are found inside the Florida corals.
Due to their distinct shape and size most of the Florida corals have been named specifically to highlight their individual identity. The most common Florida corals are:
For a common man it is difficult to identify between the strange looking shrubs and trees and Octocorals as both look quite similar to each other. Octocorals are made up of living polyps and are also known as gorgonin because their internal structure is made up of a substance known as gorgonin that looks like a horn. That is why the octocorals cannot build the thick skeletons of limestone. The most common octocorals found in Florida corals are:
Various factors such as damage from hurricanes, coral diseases and global warming side effects are causing depletion in the number of Florida corals. It is estimated that if proper steps are not taken to protect these corals, more than 50 coral species can become extinct by the turn of the century. Ocean acidification and ocean warming are the factors resulting in the fast disintegration of Florida corals. The past 25 years have witnessed significant decline in the number of coral reefs especially around Southern Florida. The declining population of elkhorn, a marine species that stabilizes and builds the coral reefs is one of the key factors causing disintegration of Florida corals. The prime reasons for the decreasing population of elkhorn are diseases, storms, and dramatic fluctuation in oceanic temperature. The sewage that is disposed into the ocean through Florida keys is causing the choking of elkhorn due to malnutrition and pollution. The status of around 82 corals is being reviewed by the National Marine Fisheries Service that are specifically covered under Endangered Species Act and measures are being recommended for protecting these Florida corals.
To learn more on Coral reefs, click below: