Oculina varicosa, or ivory tree coral, is a slow–growing, branchlike coral whose thickets provide spawning sites for numerous species of reef–dwelling fish, including groupers and snappers. Oculina reefs grow along the U. S. continental shelf with concentrations occurring off the east–central coast of Florida. Limestone “pinnacles,” lie near the 80–meter depth contour off east–central Florida and extend tens of meters above the surrounding sea floor. This area, called the Oculina Bank, is located approximately 15 miles offshore Fort Pierce. The Oculina Bank has suffered extensive habitat damage due to mobile fishing gear (trawls and dredges) and anchoring activities.
In 1984, the South Atlantic Council recognized the special significance of the Oculina Bank habitat and designated the Oculina Bank as a Habitat Area of Particular Concern. This action closed a 92–square–kilometer (300 square miles) area to trawling, dredging, longlining, and trapping. Additional restrictions apply to anchoring and possession of rock shrimp and Oculina coral while in this area.
Oculina Bank is a natural coral reef that runs from Fort Pierce to Daytona starting at 17 miles offshore and runs to the edge of the Atlantic Ocean’s Continental Shelf. This is a deep water reef is in 250 feet to 300 feet deep waters rising 65 feet off the ocean floor. What makes this reef unique and under the protection of many agencies is that is contains the rare deep-water inhabiting coral Oculina varicosa, the Ivory Tree Coral.
Oculina Coral, Ivory Tree coral
Source: http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/explorations/ islands01/log/aug29/media/oculina_varicosa.html
Deep water Oculina reefs are not known to exist anywhere else in the world except off the Atlantic coast of Florida. This slow growing delicate tree-like coral is very slow growing — it took over a thousand years to create Florida’s Oculina Bank! Oculina coral form mounds and pinnacles that are up to 100 feet tall and provide habitat for a wide variety of fish and invertebrates.
The reef is located directly under the Gulf Stream and is a breeding ground for Gag and Scamp Grouper along with 70 other species that call this reef home. Snowy and Warsaw grouper, as well as Black Sea Bass, Golden Tilefish, and Speckled Hind were abundant before the fishing industry took notice and targeted this fertile area.
Recreational fishing and shrimp trawlers have caused significant habitat destruction of the fragile coral, in some areas literally stripping the coral to bare sea floor. 397 square nautical miles of Oculina Bank reef is now federally protected; this is the first deep water coral reef to be protected in the world.