Just say no to more fishing access closures in the Florida Keys.

Purple lines indicate potential new zones closed to fishing. Yellow boxes are existing closed areas. These are prime Key West fishing grounds. Many new closures are being discussed along the chain.

What began in December 2011 as a push to increase marine zoning in the Florida
Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) is nearly at its midpoint. After working-group drafts by the Sanctuary Advisory Council and public comments last year, the process calls for internal reviews before final public comments in the spring and fall of 2014 before new zones may go into effect by summer of 2015.

“Right now, the plan is to discuss options with the Advisory Council in December and then come back to the Council with the economic/environmental analysis and potential alternatives probably mid-2014,” said Sean Morton, superintendent of the FKNMS. He added that information on the status of the process is at floridakeys.noaa.gov/review/workgroups.html. In reality, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ultimately calls the shots on the increased no-fishing zones, as the national
sanctuary system comes under its purview.

The FKNMS, designated in 1990, encompasses 2,896 square nautical miles and 60 percent of it lies within state waters. It shares boundaries with Everglades National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park and Biscayne National Park. Currently 24 no-fishing zones exist and NOAA seems intent on more. The original FKNMS management plan went into effect in 1996—the same year residents in the Florida Keys in a non-binding
ballot referendum turned thumbs-down to even having the FKNMS, in large part due to the contentious issue of no-fishing zones. Another version of the management plan was updated in 2007.

“Before all fishing is banned in any area, there can be strict, personal-use limits that do an equal or better job of managing these waters and still preserve the public good of recreational angling,” said FS Founder Karl Wickstrom.

Many sources also share a concern that the FKNMS has already bitten off more than it can chew. According to a 2011 report card conducted by NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, 17 “State of Sanctuary Resources” categories of the FKNMS were graded: none received a good rating, two are listed as good/fair, three as fair, 10 as fair/poor, one as poor and one undetermined. The most telling category—the condition and health of key species in the sanctuary—is one of those earning a fair/poor rating.

Coral reefs are important nurseries for fisheries in the Keys, and they’re in dire straits for complex reasons. According to Professor Christopher Langdon at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, “The decrease of corals in the Florida Keys has been carefully documented since the 1970s. The decrease is on the order of 80 percent.”

Meanwhile, fishing activity in the Keys has plummeted. In a study from 1995 to 2008 cited by the FKNMS, the number of angling days decreased by 25 percent. It’s probably dropped even further since then, due to the dizzying regulations, zones and restrictions facing visitors. Even so, the proponents of no-fishing
zones claim that the zones covering these dying reefs are responsible for huge increases in fish and that anglers are clamoring for more banned areas. Utter nonsense.

Unfortunately, one of the species expanding rapidly in the Florida Keys is the invasive lionfish, whose indiscriminate diet threatens many key finfish species native to the coral reef ecosystem. The FKNMS sponsors sporadic derbies to spear or catch lionfish, but the no-fishing zones, ironically, protect this menace. So, fewer anglers, a reef environment in decline and a fair/poor rating of sanctuary’s
resources casts doubt on representations that no-fishing zones are wildly successfully.

Charts shown at public hearings [sample, above] suggest major new restrictions on angling, but for now, said Morton, “Neither the agencies, advisory council nor working group has proposed any changes to the no-take zones.” Anglers hope that will remain the case. FS
First Published November 2013

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