Speak now or forever hold your peace -- well, at least for the next 10 years or so.
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and U.S. Fish Wildlife Service are conducting a review of their rules. It's the first such review since the sanctuary was created in 1990. It also marks the first time refuge managers have updated their Backcountry Management Plan, which regulates the backcountry waters and refuge islands, since it was implemented in 1992, said Keys Refuge Manager Anne Morkill.
The sanctuary and Fish Wildlife plan to conduct five public scooping meetings in the Keys and South Florida in June.
One of the biggest issues Morkill is hearing about is the use of personal watercraft in the refuges, something now prohibited.
"We are already hearing from both sides, both pro and con," Morkill said.
Another source of debate is closing of a large sandbar next to Boca Grande Key called Wilma Key. The sandbar was formed by Hurricane Wilma as it passed by the Keys in 2005. Wilma Key is regularly used by more than 60 species of bird, Morkill said.
Refuge managers will be "reassessing" the closure while conducting the Backcountry Management Plan review, Morkill said.
"The island has shrunk," she added. "It may erode away."
The sanctuary is reviewing all of its regulations, including rules and boundaries for marine zones, no-fishing areas and other special protection areas. People also have asked sanctuary and refuge managers to consider implementing classes for people who want to boat in the Keys, and limits on the use of personal watercraft. Personal watercraft and a proliferation of personal watercraft tours has become a source of concern in sanctuary waters as well.
Some conservationists are calling for the sanctuary to review its special protected areas and ecological reserves, which are set up to protect fish spawning populations.
Sanctuary Superintendent Sean Morton said "everything is on the table" when it comes to the review. Sanctuary managers recently released a "Condition Report 2011 for Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary," the first such report since the sanctuary was established. It outlines the health of the coral reef ecosystem and the fisheries in sanctuary waters, citing reduced numbers of corals, queen conch, long-spined sea urchins, groupers, sea turtles and other keystone species. The report will guide the review process, Morton said.