Southeast Florida’s reefs need protection, but not MPAs.

After two years of planning meetings, this week the Our Florida Reefs Initiative unveiled its working recommendations to protect reef systems off the four-county southeast Florida coastline, from offshore of St. Lucie Inlet in Martin County south to the northern border of Biscayne National Park in Miami-Dade County. The recommendations, 68 in all, include one (N-146), concerning to anglers, boaters and divers. The recommendation would “establish and implement a Marine Protected Area zoning framework…for the region of interest.” A number of reef tracts have been identified for possible “no-take reserves, no anchor areas, restoration areas, and seasonal protection for spawning aggregations to enable sustainable use,” according to N-146.

The Our Florida Reefs Initiative is requesting the public’s commentary on N-146 and the other recommendations for action via its website or public meetings. All the materials and the history of the planning process can be read at www.ourfloridareefs.org/RMAcomment. You can attend and comment in writing at any of the series of public meetings being held in the region in January and February. The meeting times and locations are listed at www.ourfloridareefs.org. Comments must be received by Friday, March 1, 2016. Public participation in the process is crucial to ensure that any laws reflect public interest.

While the news of possible Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the region may seem to be out of the blue to some South Floridians, the process began in June 2013, when a variety of community representatives were selected to form working groups, which met for the next two

years to develop a plan to protect the reef system. South Florida’s reef system, which extends all the way down through the Keys to the Dry Tortugas, has seen degradation caused by a number of factors, including water quality and warming water temperatures which cause “coral bleaching,” a disease deadly to corals.

The coral reef system is a rich, diverse and incredibly complicated ecosystem which is crucial to the health of fish populations. Anglers and divers of course want to see the reefs protected and treated properly. But the effects of angling and diving on the reef system is debatable and even harder to quantify. The effects of MPAs on the fishing public is more certain: discouragement and frustration for a pursuit that accounts for 61,000 jobs and $5.7 billion in sales and income in the region alone. Residents and visitors who would question the value of any MPAs should voice their commentary at the Our Florida Reefs website before March 1.

“Citizens should be aware that ‘Marine Protected Area’ is usually just another way of saying ‘no-fishing zone’,” said Jeff Weakley, editor of Florida Sportsman. “California went through this kind of thing a few years ago, and unfortunately a big chunk of that coastline is now closed to all fishing—beaches, reefs, all sorts of popular fishing areas closed.

“What’s ironic about this current Florida Reefs Initiative is that grouper, snapper and other reef fish anglers like to catch are already well-protected in the region by bag limits, seasonal closures and gear restrictions. Genuine threats to coral reefs such as beach renourishment, stormwater runoff, sewer outfalls, coastal development and global changes in ocean chemistry—these are the things we should be talking about.”

At the end of the comment process, the recommendations will be forwarded to the agencies for consideration and will guide the development of a comprehensive management strategy for Southeast Florida’s coral reefs. The earliest any management actions would take effect would be later this year.

The current meetings list includes these locations:

Friday, January 29

Delray Beach City Library

100 W. Atlantic Avenue

Delray Beach, FL 33444

Tuesday, February 16

Holiday Park Social Center

1150 G. Harold Martin Drive

Fort Lauderdale, FL 33304

Wednesday, February 17

Newman Alumni Center

UM/Coral Gables Campus

6200 San Amaro Drive

Coral Gables, FL 33146

Thursday, February 18

Kovens Conference Center

FIU/Biscayne Bay Campus

3000 NE 151st Street

North Miami, FL 33181

Our Florida Reefs is a public interest program started by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Coral Reef Conservation Program, with funding from NOAA and the FWC.

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