Marine Fisheries Habitats
Where Fish Live
Florida’s 8,426 miles of tidal shoreline outlining numerous estuaries and tens of thousands of square miles of offshore waters are home to a diverse assortment of marine communities, saltwater fish habitats and angling opportunities. From the shores of Fernandina Beach on the Atlantic coast, south to the warm waters of the Keys and over to the Gulf waters of Pensacola, lies a vast network of marine habitats essential to the health and productivity of many species.
How You Can Help
Without healthy marine habitats, Florida’s world-renowned fishing industry and iconic saltwater fish species wouldn’t be able to thrive. Maintaining healthy marine habitats start with you. There are lots of things you can do to help enhance or maintain marine fisheries habitat. Remember: No Habitat, No Fish!
- Learn how to create a living shoreline to attract fish
- Volunteer to help with a habitat project
- Join the Florida Coral Crew
- Stash your trash and dispose of it in a proper receptacle ashore
- Recycle your monofilament fishing line or cut line into small sections before disposal to avoid entangling wildlife
- Properly dispose of chemicals, oils and other hazardous materials in designated locations or receptacles
- View Boating and Angling Guides to see what marine habitats might be near you and how you can access them without damaging them
- Learn to navigate waterways you’ll be traveling to avoid damage to your vessel and submerged habitats like oyster reefs and seagrass beds
- Tie to mooring buoys rather than anchoring on reef or natural habitat structures
- Pole, paddle or use an electric trolling motor to avoid damaging shallow seagrass beds with a vessel's propeller
- Set anchors securely so they do not drag
- Report fish kills, exotic species and trapped or injured wildlife through the FWC Reporter app
Marine Fisheries Habitats
Beach and Surf
A sandy beach under constant siege from wind, waves, and currents may seem harsh at first glance; however, this environment typically boasts good water quality and plenty of nutrients from beach wrack washed up on the shore. Beach wrack is natural material that washes onto the beach such as algae, sea grasses, sponges and soft corals. Wrack serves as the primary source of nutrients to beach communities and is the foundation for the food chain.
For hardy sea creatures, this beach and surf habitat can prove quite hospitable. Florida pompano, kingfish (whiting), bluefish, Spanish and king mackerel, cobia, jacks, snook, tarpon and other prize marine fish can all be found off Florida’s beaches. Beach piers are also a great place to catch a variety of fish species. Fish are often waiting in troughs (deep areas) between sandbars or reefs and the beach. Cast a baited surf rig toward these areas for a chance to catch fish as they swim outward from the troughs. Beaches also provide important foraging habitat for shorebirds.
Sheltered areas where freshwater from rivers or watersheds mix with the sea are called estuaries. These dynamic systems, with waters that can range from very salty to almost fresh, rank as one of the most productive ecosystems in nature. More than 70 percent of Florida’s most important recreational and commercial marine species spend a portion of their lives in these sheltered and productive waters. That’s why estuaries are sometimes called “the cradle of the ocean.” Estuarine habitats can include salt marshes, seagrass beds, mangroves, mud and sandy bottom, oyster bars, exposed rock and algae beds. Many recreational activities can be enjoyed in estuaries including fishing, kayaking and bird watching.
Salt marshes are grassy, coastal wetlands rich in marine life. They are also called tidal marshes since they are covered by tidal waters on a regular basis. Mullet, red drum, flounder, gag grouper and other fishes are nurtured in salt marshes as juveniles but move offshore as adults to spawn. As their eggs develop into larvae in the open ocean, they are transported into estuarine communities such as salt marshes by tides and currents.
In addition to providing nursery habitat, salt marsh plants have extensive root systems that enable them to withstand storm surges and limit damage to upland areas. Salt marshes also serve as filters, absorbing or trapping pollutants from upland development and reducing the amount of contaminants entering estuarine waters.
Salt marshes are great areas for fishing, kayaking and bird watching. When fishing in salt marshes, look for spots that have bottom structure like shells, oysters, rocks or inundated vegetation. These areas tend to concentrate fish by providing habitat where fish prefer to feed and hide. Look and listen for signs of fish, such as birds diving, bait leaping and fish breaking the surface or creating wakes.
Seagrasses are underwater flowering plants that live in Florida’s protected bays, lagoons and other shallow coastal waters. Turtlegrass, manatee grass and shoal grass are the most common seagrasses in Florida, although seven species can be found around the state.
Seagrass beds and meadows are rich with biological diversity and provide many benefits to the wildlife and people of Florida. They are habitat for a large variety of commercially and recreationally important fish and shellfish such as gag grouper, spotted seatrout and bay scallops. They are also an important food source for pinfish, sea urchins manatees and sea turtles.
In our estuaries, seagrasses perform a number of ecosystem services, such as protecting homes by binding sediments and preventing shoreline erosion, absorbing nutrient pollution and keeping the water clear and full of oxygen, and capturing and storing carbon in the fight against climate change. In many ways, seagrasses are vital for keeping Florida’s estuary waters clean, clear and beautiful.
Seagrass beds also host a wide variety of sportfish, contributing directly to the many fishing opportunities famous to Florida. Seatrout, grunt, snapper, grouper, redfish and bonefish all spend time in seagrass meadows. When boating and fishing near seagrasses, however, it is important to carefully pole or drift your vessel through shallow areas to avoid causing propeller scars and groundings, as these can severely damage often-fragile seagrass meadows. By protecting, conserving and restoring seagrasses, we can help preserve and enhance this resource and the commercial and recreational fisheries it supports.
Mangroves are another of Florida’s most important coastal habitats. Four types of salt-tolerant trees are found in the state: red, black and white mangroves, and buttonwood. They are a crucial part of Florida’s coastal ecosystem, providing nesting sites for shore birds and shelter for juvenile fish, crustaceans and shellfish.
Red mangroves are typically found closest to the water and are easily identified by their large arching tangle of roots called “prop roots.” Black mangroves usually occur slightly more landward in shallower water and can be identified by numerous pencil-like root protrusions (pneumatophores) around the base of the tree’s trunk. White mangroves can be found farthest inland in the intertidal elevations and usually do not have any visible root systems.
Mangroves help maintain the health and integrity of Florida’s coasts. They trap and cycle multiple pollutants, including chemical elements and inorganic nutrients, and their roots provide attachment surfaces for filter feeders such as barnacles and oysters. In addition, mangroves provide the two most basic requirements for animal survival: food and shelter. The food comes from rich “marine compost” produced when microorganisms consume animal droppings and plant litter that falls from mangrove canopies into the water. Shelter is provided by tangled prop roots and pneumatophores that extend below the water line.
Many recreational activities can be enjoyed near mangroves including fishing, kayaking and bird watching. Sight fishing for snook, tarpon and redfish is popular in south Florida’s mangrove habitats. Anglers can pole through shallow areas, placing casts toward targeted fish sighted along mangrove fringes from tall poling platforms on flats boats. Fish can also be caught by casting bait into areas along mangrove shorelines where birds are feeding or branches are overhanging, creating a hiding place for favorite baitfish. Avoid entangling your gear when casting in these areas and promptly remove any fishing line that becomes entangled.
The extensive Florida Reef Tract spans more than 330 miles from the Dry Tortugas in Monroe County (west of Key West) to the St. Lucie Inlet in Martin County. More than 6,000 species of marine organisms are found on these coral reefs.
Some people mistake corals for rocks or plants, but they are actually living animals. A coral colony is made up of hundreds of thousands of individual animals called polyps that extract minerals from seawater to create a limestone skeleton, serving a similar structural purpose as our bones. Corals are among the slowest-growing organisms on earth and most grow at a rate of just two millimeters per year. It can take more than 13 years for a coral colony to grow one inch! This slow growth rate is one of many reasons why it is so important to protect these valuable, highly vulnerable resources from threats like anchor damage and water pollution.
Coral reefs offer an abundance of diving, snorkeling and fishing opportunities. A myriad of fish species are found among coral reef structures and crevices, including snapper, grouper, hogfish and grunts. Extreme care must be taken when fishing near reefs to avoid damaging the slow-growing coral polyp colonies that create these important ecosystems. Never anchor on coral reefs, instead drift-fish or tie your boat to available mooring buoys.
The FWC Artificial Reef Program is one of the most active and diverse programs of its kind in the United States. More than 3,700 artificial reefs in Florida's state and federal waters have been built to provide and enhance recreational fishing and diving opportunities, socioeconomic benefits for coastal communities, research opportunities to address reef ecology questions, and structural habitat for reef-associated fishes and invertebrates.
The FWC Artificial Reef Program is a cooperative partnership with local coastal governments. Many of the 70-100 public artificial reefs constructed annually are built using a combination of federal, state and private funds. Artificial reefs primarily consist of concrete and steel materials and can be designed to achieve specific fishery management objectives, including supporting the sustainability of Florida’s marine fish communities. Artificial reefs offer an abundance of diving opportunities and several species can be caught over or near artificial reefs, including grouper, snapper, mackerel, jacks and barracuda. Drop a weighted rig with a circle hook close to the bottom while drifting over the reef to draw fish up to your bait.
Use care when fishing near reefs since gear can become caught, damaging important structure. Use GPS enabled trolling motors to avoid anchoring on reefs. If you must anchor, do so well upstream or upwind of reefs so that your boat is positioned over the reef to avoid anchor entanglement.
Learn more about artificial reefs and reef locations. Many counties also publish their own directories for local artificial reef sites. For more information, contact the Division of Marine Fisheries Management at (850) 487-0554 or Marine@MyFWC.com.
“Bluewater,” a term often used to describe the open ocean, can be found off the coast of Florida in both the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean, typically near continental shelf edges. In the Gulf of Mexico, these shelf edges come much closer to land near Pensacola and Destin than in the Big Bend and west coast areas. In the Atlantic Ocean off Florida’s east coast, the shelf comes within a few miles of Fort Lauderdale then gradually moves farther from shore as it continues northward.
The north-flowing Gulf Stream originates in the southern Gulf of Mexico, moves northeast through the Florida Straits, brushes the coast of Palm Beach and continues north, moving farther offshore along the U.S. Atlantic coast before turning eastward toward Europe. The Gulf Stream has an important influence on continental shelf edge areas and other habitats of Florida’s east coast by moderating temperatures and creating conditions under which hundreds of marine species thrive.
Bluewater areas and the Gulf Stream provide an avenue for movement, nutrient cycling and a range of temperatures that are comfortable for virtually all offshore pelagic fish, including billfish, tuna, dolphinfish (mahi-mahi), wahoo, mackerel and amberjack. Look for visible signs of fish, such as birds hovering or diving into the water and surface commotion that might indicate feeding. Fish are attracted to debris and patches of floating sargassum that collect along current edges and in areas where currents mix. Eddies that break off from currents are also worth investigating, as are color changes or edges of currents, where two different bodies of water meet - the open ocean version of structure for pelagic fish.