The fragile coral reefs of the Florida Keys form the largest living coral reef ecosystem in the continental United States. Lining the shallow outer shelf approximately 5 to 7 km seaward of the keys, the reefs have national aesthetic and resource value. As recently as the 1970s, the coral reefs were the heart of a vibrant ecosystem. Since then, the health of all ecosystem components has declined markedly due to a variety of environmental stressors . Corals are succumbing to bleaching and diseases. Species that are the building blocks of solid reef framework are increasingly being replaced by species that do not construct reef framework. Algal proliferation is increasing competition for space and hard surfaces needed by coral larvae for settlement. Decline of the coral reef ecosystem has significant negative implications for economic vitality of the region, ranging from viability of the tourism industry attracted by the aesthetics to commercial fisheries drawn by the resources. At risk of loss are biologic habitats and reef resources, including interconnected habitats for endangered species in shoreline mangroves, productive nearshore marine and wetland nurseries, and economic offshore fisheries.
In 1997, the U.S. Geological Survey's Coastal and Marine Geology Program undertook a comprehensive 7-year-long mission to consolidate, synthesize, and map new (1997) and existing geologic and biologic information into a digitized regional database and one-volume reference source on the geologic history of the Florida Keys reef tract (this report). The project was conducted in cooperation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Sanctuary Program. The purpose was to examine the natural evolution and demise of several coral reef ecosystems over the past 325,000 years, with an eye toward gaining a better understanding of the cause of the reef decline observed today. Scientific data and datasets presented in this report are intended for use by others in ongoing efforts to delineate which components of reef decline in the Florida Keys may be natural and which may be a result of human activities.
Beyond scientific baseline datasets, this report also incorporates environmental, social, and historical aspects of the Florida Keys, including the impact of exploratory oil wells on benthic habitats off Florida.