Efforts to restore damaged reef with cultivated coral have met with notable success over the past five years, and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and coral conservation groups have put increased emphasis -- and money -- toward creating coral nurseries.
But with current funding -- federal stimulus money -- drying up in December, conservationists are looking for a long-term source of money.
One concept, pitched during public hearings conducted this month by federal sanctuary and wildlife officials, is user fees collected by charter snorkel and dive boats operating in the sanctuary.
The meetings were intended to get public suggestions for updating regulations for the marine sanctuary and Florida Keys Wildlife Refuges, and participants included many conservationists and marine recreation-oriented business operators.
Scott Saunders, owner of Fury Water Adventures, said user fees could be placed in an environmental trust fund with proceeds going toward coral restoration and other environmental projects.
"I believe that we need to be part of the solution," Saunders said.
Sanctuary Superintendent Sean Morton cautioned that such enthusiasm would not be universal.
"This would be controversial because we are talking about charging user fees to use the ocean," he said.
Morton said user fees would require a "completely new regulatory structure" that "would have to be thoroughly vetted."
Education was another area of interest to stakeholders.
"We need to educate our customers about the resources," Saunders said. "Our goals need to be consistent with [the sanctuary's] goals."
Saunders said his company is working toward attaining Blue Star status.
Blue Star is a volunteer program through the sanctuary that recognizes and rewards snorkel and dive boat operators for putting more emphasis on education and protecting the coral reef.
The sanctuary offers a similar program for dolphin-watch charters called Dolphin SMART. That program recognizes operators for responsible viewing of wild dolphins, and for teaching customers about the importance of dolphin conservation.
SMART is an acronym for: Stay at least 50 yards from dolphins; Move away slowly if the dolphins show signs of disturbance; Always put your vessel engine in neutral when dolphins are near; Refrain from feeding, touching, or swimming with wild dolphins; and Teach others to be Dolphin SMART.
The sanctuary purposely made Dolphin SMART and Blue Star voluntary programs with incentives, instead of mandatory guidelines, Morton said.
"Science has shown that, by educating the public, it lessens the number of impacts to the coral reef," Morton said.
Some participants urged the agencies not to implement new rules, but to instead do a better job enforcing existing rules.
Others suggestions included ending the annual lobster mini-season, and closing or restricting fishing for mutton snapper during the spawning season in May and June. However, those activities fall outside the sanctuary and Wildlife Service jurisdiction. Morton said he would present those ideas to the appropriate agencies if the Sanctuary Advisory Council agreed to the proposals.
The public input period for sanctuary and refuge management plans closed Friday. The agencies will next analyze the recommendations and pass them on to the Sanctuary Advisory Council for review. The advisory council comprises local fishermen, divers, conservationists and watersports owners. The council ultimately decides what, if any, changes will be made. The updated plans are expected to be completed in 2015, after additional public comment is heard.