Marine Fisheries Habitats
Where Fish Live
Florida’s 8,426 miles of tidal shoreline is home to an assortment of marine communities and diverse fishing opportunities. From the shores of Fernandina Beach on the Atlantic coast, south to the warm waters of the Keys and over to the Gulf beaches of Pensacola, lies a vast network of marine habitats that are 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. 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!
- 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
- Cut non-monofilament fishing line into small sections before disposal to avoid entangling wildlife
- Properly dispose of chemicals, oils and other hazardous materials
- Use charts to learn waterways
- Tie to mooring buoys
- Pole through shallow seagrass beds
- 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 seaweed washed up on the shore. For hardy sea creatures, this surf habitat can in fact prove quite hospitable. Florida pompano, kingfish, bluefish, Spanish and king mackerel, cobia, jacks, 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 trapped in troughs 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.
Areas where freshwater from rivers or watersheds meet and 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 include salt marshes, seagrass beds, mangroves, mud and sandy bottom, oyster bars, exposed rock and algae beds.
Salt marshes are grassy, coastal wetlands rich in marine life. They are also called tidal marshes since they are heavily influenced by tidal movements. Mullet, red drum, 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 that enter estuarine waters.
When fishing salt marshes, look for spots that have bottom structure like shells, oysters or rocks. These areas tend to concentrate fish by providing a place 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. Turtle, manatee and shoal seagrass are the three most common seagrasses in Florida.
Seagrass beds are rich with biological diversity and provide many benefits to the wildlife and people of Florida. They provide shelter for a large variety of juvenile fish and shellfish such as gag grouper and bay scallops. They are also a major food source for organisms ranging from manatees and sea turtles to pinfish and sea urchins.
Seagrasses perform many other important ecological functions as well, such as binding sediments to prevent erosion, reducing turbulence on the bottom and absorbing excess nutrients in cloudy water. In the absence of seagrass, water would begin to silt and become cloudy, preventing sunlight from penetrating further into the water column. Seagrasses are key in keeping Florida’s saltwater estuaries clear and beautiful.
Because of their vast biodiversity, seagrass beds provide a wide variety of fishing opportunities. Several species of seatrout, grunt, snapper and grouper spend time in these habitats and can be caught by presenting bait when drifting over seagrass beds. When fishing near seagrass, carefully pole through shallow areas to avoid causing prop scars that can greatly damage these fragile habitats. By protecting, conserving, and restoring seagrasses, we can help preserve our marine fisheries.
Mangroves are another of Florida’s most important coastal habitats. Three types of mangrove trees are found in the state: red, black and white. They are a crucial part of south 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 are an important component of maintaining 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.
Sight fishing for snook, tarpon and redfish is popular in south Florida’s mangrove habitats. Anglers can pole through shallow areas, perfectly placing casts toward fish sighted 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.
“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 miles of Fort Lauderdale then gradually moves father from shore as it continues northward.
The north-flowing Gulf Stream originates in the southern Gulf of Mexico, moves north through the Florida Straits, brushes near the coast of Palm Beach, continuing north 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 fish, including billfish, tuna, dolphinfish, 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 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 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.
A myriad of fish species are found among coral reef structures and crevices, including permit, amberjack, snapper, grouper, mackerel, barracuda and sharks. Extreme care must be taken when fishing near reefs to avoid damaging the slow-growing coral polyps that create these important ecosystems. Never anchor on coral reefs, but instead drift-fish or tie your boat to 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 3,600 artificial reefs in 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. 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. Avoid trolling over reefs since gear can become caught, damaging important structure.
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.