UPPER KEYS -- A proposed pilot project to erect Coast Guard approved channel markers in Florida Bay is raising the hackles of some fishing guides and anglers.
Officials at Everglades National Park, which has jurisdiction over nearly all the bay, have yet to decide on the details of the experimental project, said Fred Herling, principal park planner. But the park is under pressure from the Coast Guard to replace its current marker system of narrow stakes topped with an arrow pointing toward the channel with something more akin to the Coast Guard's thicker and more prominent red-triangle and green-square markers.
Within the next couple of weeks park officials will be convening to work on details of a likely pilot program, which would involve marking three to five channels over a test period of approximately three years, Herling said. During that time officials would observe the impact the Coast Guard channel markers have on boat traffic and the bay bottom.
"What this study is trying to do is carefully evaluate what options we have to meet the requirements of becoming Coast Guard-compliant while protecting the resources and providing for safe boater transit in the bay," Herling said.
Some anglers, though, say that marking Florida Bay with the more obtrusive signs will mar its natural beauty. Even worse, they fear traditional Coast Guard signs would serve as an open invitation to large vessels unsuited for the shallow and tricky-to-navigate water of Florida Bay, home to prized fish like snook, permit and tarpon.
"This issue of Coast Guard markers being installed in the channels of Florida Bay is the most dangerous thing we've ever had to face as Florida Bay users," longtime Islamorada fishing guide John Kipp wrote in a recent call to action to his colleagues.
In December, the Alternative E Committee, a group of Upper Keys anglers and fishing guides that advocates on Florida Bay issues, sent a letter to Everglades Superintendant Dan Kimball calling for the stake and arrow marking system to remain.
Among other issues, the group questioned the functionality of the red and green Coast Guard sign system in a place like the bay. The signs traditionally operate under the rule of "red right returning," meaning boats returning to shore should keep the red posts on their right. However, in Florida Bay, where boaters must navigate through a virtual maze of shallow basins regardless of their status of travel, such a system could lead to lots of confusion, the committee wrote.
More concerning, says Kipp, is that once Coast Guard-approved markers go up, they will be represented on charts and GPS systems. Such a scenario would lead to a gradual increase of large boat traffic in those marked channels, Kipp contends. Those boats, he says, would eventually dredge out the approaches to the channels, most of which are no more than two-feet deep. That in turn, will run off fish.
"We're going to be in a situation where we're going to lose the rest of our tarpon fishery," Kipp said.
Herling says the National Park Service isn't oblivious to such concerns. That's why they're talking about trying a pilot program first, and then analyzing the results before deciding whether and how to proceed with permanent changes. Moreover, he said, changes in the marking system will almost certainly be accompanied by an enhanced boater education system for the bay.
Herling also emphasized that the existing stake and arrow marking system hasn't prevented ongoing scarring of the flats and of Florida Bay.
"The fact is, all of the channels that are out there today are on the charts already," he said. "It also includes GPS waypoints. It's not like it's a secret."