Two ships sank and one ran aground, possibly damaging the coral reefs in the Florida Keys

Two ships recently sank and one ran aground in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the federally protected waters that surround the island chain, possibly damaging the fragile coral reef ecosystem.

The three boating mishaps took place between Feb. 16 and 22: A 32-foot recreational vessel sank at the Little Conch Reef in the Upper Keys, a 22-foot fishing boat sank near Ballast Key and a 36-foot sailboat named “No Worries” ran aground at Key Largo Dry Rocks.

The “No Worries” boat broke free of a mooring ball, according to the U.S. Coast Guard and two men were rescued, one by helicopter.

Only one of the vessels — the one that sank at Little Conch Reef — has been removed from the water. The owner of the boat that sank at Ballast Key doesn’t have insurance and the “No Worries” sailboat broke into pieces during salvaging, according to sanctuary officials.

“I can’t tell you yet what injuries are to the reef or seagrass area,” said Lisa Symonds, regional response coordinator for the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. ““We’ve not had a chance to do assessments. We can’t do that until after salvage has been completed. Ballast Key is probably going to be a seagrass injury.”

From coral bleaching to Hurricane Irma and the recent discovery of coral disease in the Keys, the precious Keys ecosystem is under pressure.

“The corals are really stressed,” Symonds said. “Any additional physical stresses like a grounding are really problematic.’’

A boat can hit the coral reef and its propeller could break coral organisms off the reef, while a large commercial ship can grind the reef top into what experts call “pavement.”

“You lose all that structural integrity in the reef,” Symonds said. “There’s nothing left but broken little pieces of coral.”

Each year, about 600 vessels sink, run aground or somehow impact the sanctuary waters.

“That doesn’t mean every one of those is a vessel sinking or breaking apart,” Symonds said. “Some of those might be groundings where someone puts a prop scar through the seagrass and it creates a blow hole.”

Running aground is when a vessel gets stuck on something below and the operator guns the boat trying to free it, just like when a driver stuck in snow hits the gas. A “blow hole” is when sediment is blown away by the boat.

Symonds urges boaters who run aground to either call a salvage team or, if possible, wait until high tide comes and frees the boat. Do not gun the engine to rock the boat free.