Hearings on Biscayne Park Fishing Restrictions, Dec. 9-11

Hold the Phone – It’s Another Zone!

By Doug Kelly

For over 10 years, Biscayne National Park (BNP), a 270-square-mile marine park encompassing most of Miami’s Biscayne Bay, has pursued the goal of updating its management plan with the crown jewel a 16-square-mile no-fishing zone. However, standing in the way among others was the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), which oversees fisheries management in state waters. Much of BNP is within state boundaries that extend three miles on the Atlantic coast.

But that’s no longer the case. BNP, a park under the purview of the U.S. Interior Department’s National Park Service, came up with a new limited-entry zoning scheme and other fishing restrictions with staff involvement from the FWC. During a Nov. 21 meeting, the FWC commissioners voted to endorse the concept of this zone in Alternative 6 of the proposed BNP management plan, but with the proviso that any rule-making changes will still require state approval.

Deemed a Special Recreation Zone (SRZ), the proposed new zone would cover 23 square miles – over 40% larger than the zone the FWC previously declined to support. Entry would be limited to 430 recreational anglers and 70 guides annually, requiring a dual license from BNP ($25 fee) and a Special Activity License from FWC – the latter to be chosen by a blind draw of fishing licensees– to enter the zone. Other significant rules, restrictions and allowances would apply:

• Year-round hook-and-line fishing only for dual licensees
• A monthly logbook of catches provided to BNP
• Commercial fishing for ballyhoo allowed with lampara nets
• No grouper can be kept
• No lobstering
• No spearfishing except for lionfish or other designated species
• Anchoring prohibited – only mooring buoys would be available
• Adaptive management to be imposed

Numbers of divers would not be restricted, nor would divers be required to possess the dual permit. In addition, the anchoring buoy provision could allow BNP to place divers over favorable reefs and keep anglers in less fishy areas, say some critics.

As to the dubious “adaptive management” provision, all the initial regulations in the SRZ would be subject to change after reviews in years 3, 5, 8 and 10. After year 10, the SRZ could be converted to a total no-fishing zone. Commercial fishing is to be phased out. The targeted start date for the new management plan is Jan. 1, 2016.

In addition to creating the SRZ in the FWC-approved Alternative 6, other BNP changes include three no-speed zones with a 1,000-foot buffer along the entire BNP coastline as well as the bay side of Elliott Key; two zones for non-combustion engines for “protection for Florida manatees and safety for kayakers;” three of the Keys closed for “resource protection;” a “sensitive resource zone” extending 300 feet to protect wading birds; and other zones to “increase opportunities to experience natural sounds.” All of these zones add up to nearly 4,000 more acres of partial or de facto no-access limits to fishing.

At the Nov. 21 FWC meeting, commissioners Ron Bergeron and Bo Rivard expressed concerns about this new push to create a large zone in BNP. Although they and the other commissioners present voted to go forward with the concept after a presentation by a FWC staffer, Bergeron in particular reiterated the FWC’s right to preserve its fisheries management rule-making authority in state waters. In contrast, Commissioner Brian Yablonski kept reiterating that the zone would represent “only about 10 percent” of BNP, and FWC Executive Director Nick Wiley pronounced that the working group of the FWC and BNP “was now a family.”

With the FWC approving a total no-fishing zone in half of the Dry Tortugas in partnership with the NPS in 2007 and last year reapproving it, some are now concerned that the FWC – long a hold-out against usurping the state’s fisheries management authority – is loosening its resolve.

“Many anglers fear that the FWC is backing off from its previously strong position that no new no-fishing zones will be approved unless and until less radical steps are shown not to work,” said FS Founder Karl Wickstrom. “They say some FWC staffers and commissioners are caving in to anti-fishing factions because locking everyone out is easier than employing proven methods.”

FS Editor Jeff Weakley expressed concerned about blame for the poor status of the reefs off Southeast Florida being shouldered by fishermen. “Coral reefs are dying in many areas, but for reasons other than sportfishing,” he said, such as water pollution, coral diseases, and global-scale changes in ocean chemistry and weather factors. “Until the health of our reefs are remedied, grouper and snapper populations in these areas will always be challenging.”

Wickstrom agrees and adds that recreational anglers have always been strong supporters and watchdogs of the reefs and waters. “These family-level users are the first to expose problems and lead conservation efforts, not only here but also nationwide,” he said. “Let the FWC manage our state waters and let the federal agencies do the same in their jurisdictions.”

Some proponents of this limited-entry lottery system liken it to the permit procedure that FWC employs in Florida’s Wildlife Management Areas during hunting season, but others feel that’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. Limits on hunters are reasonable because of the safety factor with rifles and shotguns, and there’s much greater ease in keeping track of game populations than in marine settings. Plus, there’s no such thing as “shoot and release.”

Florida Sportsman will be watching developments closely and representing the interests of recreational angling and sensible conservation as this issue plays out, so look for our continued coverage and advisories. In the meantime, the anti-fishing elements will be organizing letter-writing campaigns and attending the hearings to influence decision-makers, so it’s extremely important to express your opinion as well.
Three public hearings about BNP’s General Management Plan are coming up soon:

• December 9, 6-9 p.m. – Newman Alumni Center, University of Miami, 6200 San Amaro Drive, Coral Gables, FL 33146
• December 10, 6-9 p.m. – Pioneer Museum, 826 Krome Avenue, Florida City, FL 33024
• December 11, 6-9 p.m. – Holiday Inn Key Largo, 99701 Overseas Highway, Key Largo, FL 33037

The deadline for public comments is Feb. 20, 2014. Comments can be hand-delivered at the hearings or mailed to Biscayne National Park GMP, National Park Service, M. Elmer (DSC–P), PO Box 25287, Denver, CO 80225-0287. You can also comment at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/bisc.

For more information on the public meetings and comment process for Biscayne National Park, contact Michael Lewan at mlewan@nmma.org. Public comments will also be accepted online or through the mail until February 20, 2014. Further guidance will be provided after the New Year.

  • Gary D. Holbrook

    National Park Service and FWC,

    As a 3rd generation Miamian with a young daughter, I was
    born and raised on the near shore waters of Biscayne Bay and the surrounding
    waters off of Elliot Key. As a Captain my grandfather and grandmother called a house boat home on the Miami River where my mother and her siblings were brought up to respect the ocean. That environmental ethos was passed on to me,
    but at the same time a common sense approach that the ocean can provide a
    healthful meal when necessary and desired.

    It is tremendously disconcerting, then, that much of the same waters that have provided incredibly beautiful environmental experiences extending over 4 generations will potentially be closed off to the same recreational and family harvesting and culinary experiences that have provided my family for 80 plus years. Has NPS or FWC considered the potential impacts on our local economy that closing such a large tract of Biscayne National Park will have? Recreational and family fishing and diving represents a multi-million dollar boost to our local economy which will have to be impacted by limiting access to the resource. How about the increased pressure on nearby tracts of reef by pushing recreational and commercial interests on to a shrinking geographic area of access?

    Equally disconcerting is the lack of common sense management policies, instead opting for a nuclear option that represents a zero sum game for the tax-paying recreational and family boater. The self-interested and extremist plan NPS seems more interested in promoting is a complete monopoly on Biscayne National Park to control its visions of attracting out-of-town visitors to take glass-bottom boat rides under the guise of “preserving cultural archaeology” and “providing more chances of experiencing natural sounds”. The average tax-paying recreational and family guy and gal are being treated like foreigners in our own hometown and we will ultimately get the shaft.

    As a self-professed recreational free-diver and fisherman I have spent thousands of hours of experiencing natural sounds in our incredible South Florida ecosystem. From Big Cypress to Lake Okeechobee, and Elliot Key to Key West neither NPS nor FWC was needed for my family and me to experience the natural sounds of our diverse South Florida environment. The waters off of Elliot Key are where I spend most of my time underwater experiencing the most incredible sounds nature has to offer.

    In the name of common sense management practices that does what NPS seems incapable of crafting, WHY NOT HAVE A UTILITARIAN PLAN THAT MAINTAINS ACCESS FOR THE GREATEST GOOD AND PROTECTS SENSITIVE ECOSYSTEMS? For example, the grouper season closing from Jan-April has resulted in more juvenile grouper species inhabiting our reef tracts off of Elliot Key in decades. Could smaller bag limits be instituted in the park for say hogfish?
    Instead of 5 per person, maybe 3? Could NPS buoy off as no take zones certain reef tracts (for example, Long Key) or archaeological resources on the “heritage trail” (for example, the Lugano or Mandalay)? How about close NPS to the lobster mini-season or limit commercial access in areas? Create more stringent rules for accessing the Sands Cut “sandbar”? Enforce the ban of no anchoring on reef tract? Or even create certain no anchoring zones?

    The answers to the above questions seems to be NO and, again, NPS seems to lack the intestinal fortitude to make the difficult common sense approaches that preserve, protect, AND retain access for tax paying citizens…instead opting for the nuclear option that will end 4 generations of access to one of the most incredible resources on our planet.

    Please feel free to contact me for any further questions or comments and I thank you for taking the time to read my letter.

    Sincerely,

    Gary D. Holbrook