Florida's Marine Habitat


The Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and hundreds of bays, sounds, and inlets provide bountiful waters that Florida's marine fish call home. We as anglers might not get the opportunity to observe and understand the underwater environment of the fish we catch. We imagine what they might be doing while they contemplate taking our bait. We may muse "I might catch more fish if I understood exactly where they hang out." In discussion of habitat, Florida's widely divergent marine topography is the first consideration. No other state in the union and few countries can boast of a more varied marine environment. Florida saltwater anglers can fish for more than 100 species of fish. Let's find out about where fish live by taking a deep breath and going underwater to explore Florida's spectacular marine habitats.

Let's start with the Panhandle. The Panhandle has long stretches of white sand beaches and ocean that rapidly drop off; boaters in 70 feet of water can often see bathers on the beach. Bountiful estuaries, places where rivers meet the sea, are generally hidden by long, narrow barrier islands.

From Apalachicola to the Big Bend, estuaries are protected by myriads of oyster bars and rocky islands, and also by the fact that water depths drop off very gradually. Off the Suwannee River and St. Marks Light, ordinary outboard motorboats can run aground more than three miles from the nearest shore. Some seagrass beds grow so far out that land is over the horizon. This area has few beaches and is predominantly marsh.

Down through the Tampa Bay area and Charlotte Harbor, the angler pursues his or her catch in seagrasses, mangroves, oyster bars, and even artificial reefs.

Traveling south, we discover the Florida Keys, with the only live coral reefs in the contiguous 48 states. The Keys are a picturesque series of rocky islands thrown like a string of pearls between land's end and Key West, each of them ringed by shallow grass flats, mangroves, and finger channels.

After visiting the Florida Keys, we travel up the Atlantic coast. The Atlantic coast is similar to the Panhandle, with lengthy beaches and an ocean floor that can drop off rapidly. Some of its estuaries are almost landlocked, with very low salinity and inlets as much as 40 miles apart. One ten-mile stretch of the Atlantic coast, north of Flagler Beach, has exposed rock reminiscent of the coastline of Maine. Each of these habitats offers its own hidden treasures for the saltwater angler.

Estuary And Bay Communities

Estuaries (from a word meaning "boiling") are where rivers meet the sea, dynamic systems in which waters are variably saltier and fresher. They constitute some of the most productive habitats in nature.

More than 70 percent of Florida's recreationally and commercially important fish and shellfish spend part of their lives in these sheltered and fertile waters. Estuaries can be called "the cradle of the ocean." Estuarine communities include seagrass, oyster bars, salt marshes, mud and sand bottom, and algal growths. Such valuable shellfish as oysters, crabs, and peneid shrimp cannot grow without a certain amount of freshwater.

About 70 percent of Florida's 13 million people live in the coastal zone. Therefore, the quality of water pouring into the estuaries is a major concern. Shellfish are filter feeders, straining their food from the water around them. If incoming water is tainted by bacteria and viruses from human and animal wastes, pesticides, or other pollutants, oysters and clams that look perfectly healthy may transmit diseases.

Seagrass Communities start in the intertidal zone and, depending on water clarity, may grow profusely to depths in excess of 20 feet. They are food factories, swarming with pinfish and pigfish, which are excellent food for gamefish. Bizarre puffers, sea robins, spotted seatrout, and cowfish dodge about in the sheltering blades of turtle grass. Catfish work the lower layer of the water column, along with juvenile sea bass and lizardfish. Grouper and snapper even use the seagrass as their nurseries.

At low tide on virtually every grass flat, you can see tracings of uprooted shallow seagrass, where power boats have churned through.

Oyster Bars teem with life, much of it attractive to gamefish of many species. When a tong-load of oysters crashes onto a culling board, many species of tiny crabs and shrimp scurry in all directions seeking cover. Brown skilletfish, with a sucking disc on their abdomens, cling to the oysters. Baby toadfish wiggle their puny tails—their grotesquely large mouths snapping convulsively.

When seatrout are driven off the grass flats by wintry blasts, they too are often found in the cuts between bars. Hulking black drum, which have pharyngeal teeth that can crush oysters, prowl the bars, looking for limpets, their favorite food.

Many fish that spawn offshore have inshore nursery grounds. Mullet, redfish, and gag grouper are nurtured in the estuaries as juveniles, but go offshore as adult spawners. The eggs develop into larvae that are transported into estuaries by tides and currents.

Juvenile mullet, the lucky ones that survive the dangerous journey from offshore locations where they were spawned, head straight for the saltmarshes, muddy tidal creeks, and sheltered shallows. They are active fish, and at three inches long can jump clear of the water. They grow rapidly under good conditions, feeding on algae and decaying vegetable matter. Mullet are a major food source for seatrout, redfish, tarpon, catfish, and black drum, as well as shore birds. With a fingerling mullet as bait, you can catch anything bigger than it is.

As marine anglers we perhaps unthinkingly contribute to the loss of valuable seagrass habitat. At low tide on virtually every shallow grass flat, you can see tracings of uprooted seagrass, where power boats have churned through. Some anglers, without considering the consequences, drag light anchors to slow their drift over a seagrass bed when fishing on a windy day, creating extensive damage. Unfortunately, damaged seagrass doesn't readily grow back.

Events that occur far from the estuaries may greatly impact the marine habitat there. The water control structures and canals that create usable farmland near Lake Okeechobee drain freshwater from the swamps or marshes into the Indian River lagoon near Ft. Pierce and along the St. Johns River. Pulses of freshwater from these canals at the wrong time can destroy the larvae and juveniles of shellfish and fish.

Damming of rivers flowing into estuaries also can affect habitat. Without the freshwater provided by rivers, estuaries may become too salty for some creatures to survive. In addition to freshwater, rivers bring to estuaries several tons of leaves, silt, and wood that are a source of energy for food webs. Dams can cause a decrease in organic material that reaches the estuary, which in turn can harm the food web that fish and other creatures depend on.

Inshore habitats are not only immensely productive, but also immensely vulnerable. This fragile community needs maximum protection.


Mangroves are one of Florida's true natives. Three types of mangroves are found in Florida: red, black, and white. They cover South Florida with a verdant and life-giving shield that nurtures marine organisms of all kinds, provides nesting sites for shore birds, and shelters juvenile fish.

Red mangrove trees suggest big green millipedes walking on the water, their prop roots desperately grasping the bottom. Black mangroves usually occupy slightly higher elevations upland from the red mangrove, and white mangroves occupy the highest elevations farther upland than either the red or black mangroves.

Along the Gulf Coast north of Tampa Bay, the red mangroves, with prop roots, are replaced by black mangroves, whose pencil-like roots protrude up from the bottom, rather than descending from the tree. The black mangroves are also valuable habitat.

Red mangroves not only provide habitat, they also create it. Their long, arrow-like seed pods hang vertically, with the seed at the bottom.

When they mature and drop off the tree, they may strike uncolonized mud with sufficient impact to take root immediately. If not, they float away and settle in some shallow area and perhaps start a new colony of trees.

Mangrove thickets offer so much protection from the elements that boaters facing a hurricane emergency frequently take their boats far up the mangrove creeks for shelter. Mangrove shorelines also buffer inland areas from storm winds and tides.

As the leaves die and decay, they become food for the community of animals living on the bottom. Snook, jacks, snappers, sheepshead, grouper, small jewfish, and barracuda hide and forage through the tangles of roots. Tarpon prowl the channels just outside the mangroves. Juvenile tripletail are seen lying on their sides, floating alongside and resembling mangrove leaves.

Anglers in shallow draft boats drift along mangrove shorelines, tossing surface plugs and flies as near the roots as their skill permits. Snook, redfish, and small tarpon come boiling up from concealment and strike in a frenzy of spray that makes for great sport.

Beach And Surf Habitat

A sandy beach with no vegetation, under constant siege from storm-stirred seas seems an unlikely setting for fish. Nevertheless, the water quality is usually high. Seaweed wrack produces nutrients for this community, and hardy creatures in abundance find the surf habitat just right for their needs.

The delectable pompano, Florida's most highly valued food fish, is the most eagerly sought surf fish. Its favorite food is the sand flea, or mole shrimp, which burrows in fine sand at the edge of the water.

Swift-moving pompano chase the sand fleas into inches of water, and nose down to capture them. Anglers gather the sand fleas with screened sieves and fish them on bottom, just beyond the surf line.

Plankton-feeding baitfish such as cigar minnows, threadfin herring, menhaden, and Spanish sardines form huge schools just off the beaches. Their ranks are constantly thinned by attacks from bluefish, Spanish mackerel, king mackerel, cobia, little tunny, ladyfish, jacks, and other prized gamefish.

During the warm months, just off the beaches of the upper east coast, adult tarpon are abundant and support a thriving catch-and-release sports fishery.

Although most king mackerel are caught in depths of 40 to 150 feet, large kings (over 20 pounds) often run the beaches, pursuing schools of menhaden and cigar minnows. Prizewinners in the Jacksonville Kingfish Tournament are sometimes taken within sight of surfers riding the swells.

Springtime sees a run of cobia off both the Panhandle and the east coast. From Daytona to Fernandina, this run is triggered by a northward migration of huge manta rays. Cobia, because they orient to large objects, follow the mantas, whose dark blanket-shaped bodies can easily be seen. Anglers find the big ray and pepper the surrounding water with jigs.

Along the Panhandle, anglers put ladders in their boats for a better vantage point to spot the westward-moving cobia. Both live baits and artificial lures are thrown to sighted fish.

Whiting, which have the common name of Gulf kingfish, are abundant on east coast beaches and common throughout the upper half of the peninsula. Their downward-angled mouths and tiny barbels show they are sandy bottom feeders that eat crabs, shrimp, and mollusks.

Fishing piers along the beach habitats can provide top-notch fishing. The piers themselves provide habitat, with sheepshead and spadefish nibbling barnacles off the pilings. Bluefish, pompano, and Spanish mackerel are the bread-and-butter species of the pier operators, but wide-ranging king mackerel flash past the piers with some regularity. Perhaps once each year, an east coast pier will report the landing of a sailfish.

Each year, beaches attract millions of visitors to Florida. However, pollution and development threaten this fragile habitat. Beachfront development and irresponsible foot traffic can destroy shifting sand dunes. Tar from ocean-going tankers often litters the sand, and pollution from Florida's rivers and canals threatens water purity.

Rock And Coral Reefs

Of all the ocean's habitats, coral reefs are the most colorful. They are built by millions of tiny animals (coral polyps) and plants (coralline algae). Their skeletons are made of calcium carbonate, the main component of limestone. When the animals die, their shells become cemented together to form a reef. Thousands of years may be required to form a reef only a few yards thick.

In America, only the Florida Keys and Hawaii have live coral reefs. The fragile corals grow best with abundant sunshine, stable water temperature, plenty of oxygen, and a good food supply. These conditions are usually found in water from midtide level down to about 130 feet. The depth at which they grow is determined by the clarity of the water. Freshwater, silt, or toxic runoff can destroy the reefs.

Each reef has many kinds of corals, often of different colors. They harbor fish in abundance and other sea life: crabs, shrimp, crayfish, sea urchins, starfish, sea cucumbers, sea fans, anemones, and marine worms.

Some coral-dwelling fish have evolved special feeding mechanisms. Angelfish and butterflyfish have long snouts and strong teeth to reach into crevices for food. The teeth of the parrotfish are fused together like a beak to chip off pieces of the coral, which they eat. They swallow the coral, their digestive systems sort out the food, and they pass fine white sand.

Florida's most unique habitat, the coral reefs, are gravely threatened by deteriorating water quality and abuse. Heavy anchors, careless divers, and fish, crab, and lobster traps dropped into delicate reef communities can be highly destructive. Sewage, pollution, and development are three of the biggest threats to Florida's coral reefs. Off Key West, the daily influx of 6 to 7 million gallons of treated sewage has spurred the growth of a blue-green algae that may cause coral disease. Also, nutrients from septic systems throughout the Keys may encourage the growth of fleshy algae that smothers reefs. In the northern Keys, measurable quantities of pesticides, possibly from canal discharge in South Florida or shipping have been discovered in waters around coral reefs. These pesticides may be damaging reefs. It's clear we can no longer think of the ocean as a dumping ground for our sewage and pesticides.

Limestone Reefs resulting from the geological upheaval that created Florida some 35 million years ago can be found off every part of Florida's shoreline. There is also a substantial amount of dead coral structure in scattered locations. These reefs shelter some of the same species that populate the coral reefs, but in lesser diversity.

The most popular rock reef species for anglers are the groupers and snappers, although the rich live-bottom habitat with its attendant baitfish also attracts the pelagic king and Spanish mackerel, cobia, amberjacks, and many others.

Spanish mackerel are some of the smaller predator fish roaming the open sea. Ceros (cero mackerel), which run larger than Spanish mackerel and have well flavored, white meat, are a reef-loving species, usually confined to South Florida. They are most common in the Keys in fall and winter.

Videos taken by divers over grouper rocks show an endless parade of school fish moving past: amberjacks, spadefish, snappers of several varieties, grunts, sergeant majors, and blue runners, to name a few. The groupers are sedentary, usually tucked under a rocky ledge, or just below the lip of a hole in the rocks.

Divers are often accompanied by unafraid and curious amberjacks. On the rocky floor, no groupers show themselves. Then, as the diver moves along and finds a ledge, hiding groupers are seen in abundance.

Red grouper are probably the most abundant of grouper in the Gulf of Mexico, although gags dominate Florida's west coast reefs.

A new study shows that gags form spawning aggregations in waters more than 120 feet deep. The clusters number about 50 females and one huge 40- or 50-pound male.

The Gulf Stream And Deep Water

The purple majesty known as the Gulf Stream courses through the Florida Straits south of Key West and moves steadily northward along the entire east coast of Florida. Like its color, its pace is majestic, a steady 4 knots. It's a mighty tropical river from 25 to 40 miles in width. Its temperature varies from a summertime 86 degrees off Key West to 75 degrees off Jacksonville in winter. Through that range of temperatures, many fish, including mullet grouper, snapper, tarpon, wahoo, billfish, tunas, cobia, dolphin and mackerel, are comfortable.

Off the Palm Beaches, the color of the Gulf Stream can be seen from the upper floors of condos. At Jacksonville, a boater has about 75 miles to run before the exciting blend of red and blue can be sighted.

The stream's northward movement poses some dangers. Because of the unseen current, anglers drifting in the current don't realize they may have moved many miles since they last took a compass bearing. Northeasterly winds can bring waves twice as high in the stream as on either side of it.

Gulf Stream anglers, like those in all deep waters, keep their eyes open for visible signs of fish, birds hovering or diving into the water, or surface commotion that might indicate feeding fish. Drifting debris or patches of floating sargassum are worth investigating.

Where there are no structures, no points of orientation, no visible indication of activity, a lot of water may need to be traversed before fish are found. Trolling is obviously the best technique, supplemented by alert watchfulness.

Anglers favor the edges of the Gulf Stream, where different bodies of water meet. Such mixing of currents also increases the chances of finding floating debris. Submerged deep-water reefs under the Stream are immensely productive, but difficult to fish.

Bluewater angling is exciting, invigorating, and expensive.

The Ocean Has No Fences. . .

Fish roam at will in the ocean. Nevertheless, most species have specific habitat needs that can be determined by examining their distinctive characteristics. Sheepshead have compact bodies, heavy scales, and both incisor-like and grinding teeth. This indicates they choose a rocky or structure-related habitat where mollusks and crustaceans abound. Snappers have compact bodies, no grinding teeth, and jaws that often have one or two enlarged canine teeth. Snappers live mostly in the ocean but sometimes frequent estuaries.

Spanish and king mackerel are torpedo-shaped with widely forked tails designed for speed and sharp teeth for slicing. They are likely to be found in open water pursuing fast-moving baitfish.

Various habitats at any given time may have fish that are permanent, seasonal, or strays. Water temperature undoubtedly influences fish movements and migrations, but its exact effect is not fully known.

The ocean has no fences, and we humans can roam at will just like fish do. On any given fishing adventure, we can enjoy Florida's bountiful estuaries, dark mangroves, and vibrant reefs. A variety of beautiful habitat is one reason why so many people enjoy fishing in Florida.

Information in this article provided by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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