Sustainability in the Florida Keys
When you live on an island, you become aware that everyone has an extra responsibility to look out for each other, and the environment we share, because it doesn’t take much to upset the natural balance of life. Whether you live in the Florida Keys, or just reside in a Keys state-of-mind, there’s nothing more important than conserving and preserving the precious resources of the world around us.
There are a million reasons to love the Florida Keys, but without the spectacular coral reefs that surround this magical place, they wouldn’t exist at all. These days, the reefs are under duress from changing environmental conditions. Several organizations are engaged in an ongoing mission to preserve the coral reefs of the Florida Keys. You can learn about environmental impacts on Florida’s reefs and propagation efforts to restore endangered staghorn and elkhorn corals, two of the reef-building species that have the best chance to propagate and create new habitats at several sites along the Florida Reef Tract, which runs from north of Miami to Key West.
As a volunteer, you can help with all things CRF, on land and at sea – from maintaining the Coral Trees™ in our coral nurseries and outplanting corals, to building trees and staffing our Exploration Center.
Mote is working with NOAA’s Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the Nature Conservancy to advance culture methods for hard corals in the Florida Keys. The Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge and SCUBAnauts International join Mote each summer to plant corals in a special restoration area of NOAA’s Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
I.CARE is dedicated to restoring the reefs off of Islamorada for current and future generations, including the world famous Alligator Reef. Its mission is to incorporate local businesses, residents and visitors in the restoration and maintenance of coral reef communities in Islamorada. Partnered with Mote Marine Laboratory, I.CARE has created the first community-based approach to reef restoration in the Middle Keys. Dive activities include coral transplanting, marine debris clean-ups and reef monitoring.
Reef Renewal USA inspires volunteers at all levels to restore and protect coral reef ecosystems while implementing effective strategies to protect and restore endangered coral reefs. It is RRUSA’s mission to inspire, educate and empower our communities using education, innovation, and science through grassroots involvement. There are opportunities for groups, individuals, and students to contribute.
Conserve on vacation as you would at home: avoid running the water while brushing your teeth, shut off the lights when you leave, turn up the thermostat to reduce air conditioning when you’re away, and recycle cans, glass and plastics on property.
People visit the Keys out of respect for the natural ecosystems and tropical beauty, however extensive contact can threaten the land and marine habitats such as coral reefs. Walking tours, trails and hikes maximize the islands’ natural surroundings, with minimal impact on the environment. A variety of plants and animals make their home in the Florida Keys.
Hike It, Bike It, Hoof It
Get off the beaten path! Hike, bike, walk, kayak or paddleboard along Florida Keys trails during your vacation -- it’s low on eco-impact and high on fresh tropical air.
Veteran Florida Keys guides recognized years ago that anglers needed to keep fewer fish. It made no sense to over fill ice chests just for the purpose of “feeding the neighbors.” Fishing journalists also started pushing a more conservation-focused angle. Government fisheries agencies implemented size and bag limits. Captains began to understand the need for conservation and counsel their clients accordingly.
Further, reduced catches evolved into catch-and-release fishing, to allow the fish to grow to larger sizes, and specifically for species not considered dinner fare such as tarpon, snook, permit, bonefish. Today, the Florida Keys are one of the world’s leading fishing regions with an unparalleled bounty of sustainable and responsible fishing from Key Largo to Key West.
Go With A Local Pro
The shallow, unmarked waters of Florida Bay can be confusing and potentially treacherous for the inexperienced. For visitors, hiring a local backcountry guide makes for a successful and educational day.
Everyone loves Panulirus Argus, Florida’s spiny lobster. And for two days every July, these tasty morsels become the quarry du jour in the Florida Keys. But Lobster Mini Sport Season is by no means a 48-hour free-for-all. There are clear guidelines designed to make the hunt fun, safe – and legal. If everyone plays by the rules, we can all enjoy these delectable crustaceans for years to come. Local, state and federal agencies strictly enforce lobster harvest and boating safety regulations.
Size matters: Use a gauge
and know how to measure.
Six means six.
Bag limit = 6 per person per day.
Don’t forget your
boating safety gear.
Avoid closed areas.
Display a dive flag.
Avoid touching or anchoring
your boat on coral.
Who doesn’t love manatees? These slow-moving, gentle giants are like the Bassett Hounds of the sea. And yet, it seems like their only real threat in the wild comes from humans who don’t understand the laws regarding their safety. Thanks to stringent protections put in place decades ago by the Endangered Species Act, Florida’s manatee population has increased from a low of about 1,200 to about 6,000 in recent years, but their species remains on the Threatened list, often victimized by errant watercraft, recreational or fishing boats.
Slow Down In No Wake Zones.
It’s virtually impossible to find a manatee without prop scars caused by boaters traveling too fast in manatee zones. These quiet, lumbering creatures can’t quickly get out of your way, so it’s up to you to stay out of theirs way, and go slow. Throttle back and keep a sharp lookout at all times.
Report Manatees In Distress.
If you accidentally strike a manatee or see one in trouble, you’re urged to report it to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). Thankfully, the Florida Keys are home to some of the world’s top manatee experts, trained to help them recover from boating injuries and infections caused by entanglement in fishing lines and nets.
Don’t Feed Or Water Them In The Wild.
As friendly and peaceful as they are, manatees are still wild animals and they’re capable of feeding themselves. By offering food or water, you’re actually putting them in harm’s way by encouraging them to get closer to canal dock and boats, rather than keeping a safe distance.
What is the most lasting thing about a vacation? The memories you create! Photographs can last a lifetime and are a great reminder of your days spent traveling through the Florida Keys. Share your Keys vacation memories through the eyes of your camera lens. Learn new photography tips from professionals; improve on your own skills. Plan your own photo quest to hit the don't-miss spots in the Keys.
Snap and Share
Share your best digital photographs of the animals and marine life, architecture, food, festivals and far-out folks, stunning sunsets, sights and more along your road trip through the Florida Keys at Florida Keys Photo Adventure.
You see it all the time; a well-intentioned fisherman throws some stale bait to a friendly dolphin who wolfs it down. The dolphin seems happy and after all, what could be wrong with feeding him? A lot, actually. Dolphins become addicted to handouts and loose their ability to fend for themselves.
Considered long-lived marine top predators, wild dolphins are more likely to be injured if humans feed them — even through unintentional means like discarding bait. Risks of injury from human interactions increase such as boat strikes, entanglement in fishing gear or ingestion of hooks and line.
Don’t Encourage Unhealthy Feeding Behaviors
Even if an animal survives with a wound or entanglement, it might be less able to survive the next challenge.
They say that too much kindness can kill. And that’s absolutely true in the Florida Keys when it comes to the region’s wildlife. The islands in the Lower Keys were underdeveloped until just the last few centuries, providing ample space for Key deer movement and dispersal across their range.
The tiny Key deer roam on Big Pine Key and neighboring islands in the National Key Deer Refuge. But although they are incredibly cute and many are easily approachable, it is not appropriate to feed them. Why? Because feeding normally occurs along the edge of the road, putting the deer at risk of getting struck by a car. Regular feeding can also cause the deer to congregate making them susceptible to spread of disease and poaching.
Let The Wildlife Be Wild
Most people who feed wildlife are animal lovers with good intentions, but this behavior ultimately has a negative impact on the animals. If we really care for our wildlife, we have to let them be wild.
The seagrasses that line the waters of the Florida Keys are home to a diverse and delicate ecosystem for creatures living in and around the ocean, including fish, sea turtles, manatees, dolphins, aquatic birds and shellfish. Seagrass is as important to the ocean as the rainforest is to the planet, providing shelter, food and oxygen to millions of species. When the seagrass thrives, the ocean thrives, because it acts as a natural water filter, trapping fine particles for inhabitants to eat, and providing fresh oxygen for us all. And when it suffers, it can take years to recover.
Stay In The Channels
It takes years to grow seagrass meadows, and only seconds for a boat propeller to completely destroy them. New and old channels have been clearly marked throughout Florida Bay.
Obey No-Motor Zones
Speed zones in the waters surrounding the Keys are clearly marked. More than 25% of the 850-acre estuary in Everglades National Park are designated pole-troll zones, and another six percent are poll-troll-idle zones. This is for your own safety, as well as the health of the seagrass meadows.
Many accommodations throughout the Keys are committed to conserving natural resources: water, energy, as well as significantly reducing the amount of waste produced.
Volunteer to help clean up and preserve the local environment. Finding local projects is as simple as reading the newspapers, checking media sites and asking around. There is always something the average person can get their hands on and do, and show positive results in real time, such as island, shoreside or reef cleanups.
Hold The Line
When fishing, avoid throwing fish carcasses and wrung lobsters overboard or into canals, as they decompose and degrade water quality. Recycle monofilament line by placing it in an outdoor monofilament-recycling container.
Not only is providing your own containers more cost efficient, it helps reduce pollution and the use of fossil fuels and toxic greenhouse gases that result from manufacturing plastic bottles.
When you shop for tropical treasures you support the small businesses and Keys artisans in the Florida Keys, and as you stock up for the vacation home at the grocery store, skip the plastic and ask for paper or a box. Best practice: remember your reusable bags!
Use a portable, refillable coffee or soda mug — preferably ceramic — instead of disposable styrofoam or plastic bottles and cups. Say “No, thank you” and skip the plastic straw at restaurants.