The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has embarked on its most important task since it came into existence in 1990.
Sanctuary managers are conducting a review of all its rules, which could change regulations that could affect everyone from the most novice boater to the most accomplished fisherman. In conjunction, the U.S. Fish Wildlife Refuge is reviewing rules for the refuges, called the Backcountry Management Plan.
The sanctuary and the Fish Wildlife Service will hold a series of public scoping meetings in the Keys and South Florida in June. However, The Nature Conservancy will co-host two public meetings about the regulatory review process next week with Reef Relief in Key West and Save-A-Turtle in Marathon.
At the meetings, Chris Bergh, the conservancy's South Florida conservation director and a Sanctuary Advisory Council member, will outline the history and current regulations of the sanctuary and the refuge backcountry as well as the public scoping process, timing and opportunities for input. A question and answer session and discussion will follow.
"If you really care, you should come out and get involved," Bergh said. "Everyone needs to put in their comments."
Bergh wants to see a comprehensive look at no-take and other special protection areas to see if they are working and are in the right places. He would also like to see more ecological reserves placed throughout the Keys, he said. Currently, there are only two reserves, the Tortugas Ecological Reserve and Western Sambos off Boca Chica Key. Bergh would like to see reserves, which are set up to protect fish spawning populations, in the Middle and Upper keys.
Bergh would also like to see if there needs to be reserves in the backcountry in the Gulf of Mexico, "as it is not all about coral reefs," he said.
The sanctuary is reviewing all of its regulations, including the rules and boundaries for marine zones, no-fishing areas and other special protection areas in the sanctuary and surrounding national wildlife refuges. People have also called on sanctuary and refuge managers to look at implementing classes for people who want to boat in the Keys and for limits on the use of personal watercraft. The proliferation of personal watercraft tours has been a source of concern among anglers in recent years.
Fury Water Adventures owner Scott Saunders told The Citizen he wants to see the personal watercraft issue addressed in public with the Sanctuary Advisory Council and refuge managers. He is not opposed to restrictions on the personal watercraft and could support coming up with a schedule for tour operators so there aren't as many tours at the same time, he said.
Saunders would also like to see buoys placed in the water so the tour operators know the boundary lines. Personal watercraft are not allowed in the Great Heron and Key West national wildlife refuges.
Sanctuary Superintendent Sean Morton said "everything is on the table" when it comes to the review. Sanctuary managers recently released the "Condition Report 2011 for Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary," the first report since the sanctuary was established in 1990. It outlines the health of the coral reef ecosystem and the fisheries in sanctuary waters, and cites a reduced number of corals, queen conch, long-spined sea urchins, groupers, sea turtles and other keystone species. The report will guide the review process, Morton said.
"The mandate is resource protection, but also public and private use," Morton said.
The review is an ongoing process, continuing into 2015.
The Nature Conservancy will hold a meeting at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Turtle Hospital, 2396 Overseas Highway, Mile Marker 48.5, bay side, in Marathon. The group will hold the second meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, 35 East Quay Road, Key West.
Information about the sanctuary and its marine zoning and regulatory review process may be found at http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/review/welcome.html.
Information on the USFWS Backcountry Management Plan may be found at http://www.fws.gov/nationalkeydeer/backcountry.html.
To stay informed of the scoping meetings and other public comment opportunities, anyone may sign up for the sanctuary's marine zoning review email list online at http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/review/email-list.html.