New sanctuary plan in works
By Steve Estes
Public split on casitas, public use amounts. back country islands
Officials from the National Marine Sanctuary and the US Fish and Wildlife Service recently completed a series of public meetings designed to gather input on future regulatory issues for back country management issues.
And what officials heard most often during those meetings was that they should do whatever was necessary to enhance near-shore water quality both for the environmental health of the local waters and for the continued participation by tourists in water-related activities. Tourism is the Keys top economic engine.
Officials also heard calls for drastic changes in boater education programs. Prop scarring of sensitive seagrass beds and other bay bottom essential to marine species has long been an issue in the Keys where boaters unfamiliar with the waters and the lack of depth in many areas cause thousands of dollars worth of damage per incident for running aground.
Participants at the public meetings also called for the sanctuary to eliminate lobster mini-season. That recreational harvest season, which precedes the actual opening of lobster season, has long been lambasted by conservationists as an unnecessary assault on Keys waters.
Businesses throughout the Keys, however, generally support the two-day mini-season, which will occur again July 25 and 26, because of the serious economic punch it provides in what is otherwise one of the slowest months of the year here.
The sanctuary heard that there are too many users of the marine environment in the Keys with commercial fishing, recreational fishing, diving and harvest of shellfish and scale fish year-round in some instances.
Commercial fishing interests, however, said that the sanctuary already has too many rules that make it difficult for the traditional industry to remain profitable, particularly for the small-boat operators.
Commercial interests also suggested that the sanctuary take over all the fishing regulations for its area to eliminate the confusing, overlapping and inconsistent regulations now in force. Those regulations are produced by two different fishery councils, one for the Atlantic and one for the Gulf.
Sean Morton, new supervisor for the sanctuary, said it would take months for staff at both agencies to review the comments from the public input sessions as well as the on-line comments.
“It will be a year before we’ll see a draft proposal that refines what we’ve heard,” said Morton.
Both federal agencies have long banned the use of personal watercraft in the back country areas, and that practice will continue, said National Wildlife Refuges Manager Anne Morkill, even though PWC proponents have been very vocal about opening up the back country area to the shallow-draft craft.
Attendees at the meetings were also split on the controversial question of casitas for commercial and recreational lobster harvest. Casitas are currently banned in the sanctuary, formed as they are usually from human debris such as car hoods, refrigerators, old appliances and construction material.
One group wanted the agencies to conduct a pilot study of the actual effect of casitas on the lobster population, while opponents simply asked that the ban remain in place.
There were also split views on public access to back country islands. Proponents of more access claim that human impacts are less than reported and that the tourism industry would be enhanced by allowing more access.
Many of the back country islands controlled by the refuge have limited use hours and certain restrictions on types of use.
The primary problem with human use of environmentally sensitive shallow-water islands, says Morkill, is the trash that is left behind by those who don’t treat the environment as well as many who live here for the ecological beauty of the area.
But she also says that there is a possibility back country management will change, including opening more islands for public use, or at least limited use.
“I don’t foresee a big land grab in closing public access,” said Morkill.
Other suggestions included adding managed mooring fields, something Monroe County is currently contemplating, and increasing the enforcement staff for fishery violations and boating violations in sensitive waters.
Some suggested that a boater safety course, complete with navigation training, be mandatory for boat pilots regardless of their place of origin, and allowing commercial fishermen to be part of the enforcement program for fishery regulations.
“We are everywhere at some point,” said local charter Captain Jim Sharpe Jr. “We can be the eyes and ears the state and feds won’t pay for right now.”
Morton said that once draft plans have been prepared, more public meetings will follow to review the plans and get more input on the proposals.
Morkill said the refuges back country management plan should be ready in draft form about the same time as the sanctuary’s plan.