Coral Reef Health Captured in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico

NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program releases status reports for Atlantic and Caribbean U.S. states and territories, and the Gulf of Mexico

Angelfish swimming through cauliflower coral at Stetson Bank in Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary
Angelfish swimming through cauliflower coral at Stetson Bank in Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. (Scott Bauer)

The NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program has released status reports for coral reefs in the Atlantic and Caribbean U.S. states and territories - Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands; and Flower Garden Banks in the Gulf of Mexico.

The status reports provide an overall snapshot of coral reef ecosystem conditions based on four indicators: corals and algae, fish, climate, and human connections. They show that coral reefs near human population centers are moderately to critically impacted, which is likely due to water quality issues, impacts from fishing, as well as warming and more acidic water conditions.

Other highlights of the status reports include:

  • Florida has an “Impaired” score, meaning that overall conditions are very impacted or have declined considerably, and human connections are lacking. Reef ecosystems in Florida have impaired coral cover, and a critical score for reef growth and fish sustainability. Fish diversity is in good condition. Note that a severe and long lasting outbreak of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease was continuing to move through Florida’s Coral Reef in 2019, and that 2019 data is not reflected in this status report.
  • Flower Garden Banks has a “Good” score on the cusp of “Very Good,” indicating that conditions are only slightly impacted or have slightly declined, and human connections are high. Coral reefs in this area have not degraded much relative to its historical baseline, showing that healthy coral reef ecosystems do exist in U.S. waters.
  • Puerto Rico has a “Fair” score on the verge of “Impaired;” conditions are moderately impacted or have declined moderately, and human connections are moderate. Reef fish diversity has been severely impacted on Puerto Rico's coral reefs. However, corals were not heavily affected by temperature stress during the 2014-2018 period, and coastal communities show high support for management actions.
  • The U.S. Virgin Islands has a “Fair” score. Fish sustainability was critical; however, corals showed low mortality and temperature stress. It is important to note that Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease had not been observed in the U.S. Virgin Islands when data were collected.

Coral reefs rival the biodiversity of tropical rainforests, and they are among the most culturally significant and economically valuable ecosystems on Earth. In the United States, coral reefs provide billions of dollars in food, jobs, recreation and tourism, and coastal protection. A U.S. Geological Survey study determined that coral reefs annually provide flood protection to over 18,000 Americans and $1.8 billion worth of coastal infrastructure. However, they face an increasing number of threats from pollution, unsustainable fishing practices, climate change and ocean acidification, and more. NOAA is taking steps to turn the tide for coral reefs through initiatives like Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Restoration Blueprint and Mission: Iconic Reefs.

The status reports were developed by the National Coral Reef Monitoring Program, an integrated and focused monitoring effort with partners across the United States. They reflect data collected from 2014 to 2018. These reports join status reports released in 2018 for the Pacific U.S. jurisdictions of American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Hawaii, and the Pacific Remote Islands.

View the 2018-2020 status reports and Methodologies Reports here.

Related Stories and Products