Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary officials this month will embark on the second part of a management plan review process and will begin dissecting thousands of comments about possible rule changes and new or expanded protected areas.
The Sanctuary Advisory Council will meet Aug. 21, when Sanctuary Superintendent Sean Morton will give a presentation outlining the public comments, Morton said. In June, sanctuary officials held three public scoping meetings in the Florida Keys that attracted hundreds of anglers and mariners. The sanctuary has also received hundreds of other comments via its Web site.
"This is sort of our first crack at it," Morton said. "It is tough to distill all of this down. It's a lot of work."
Sanctuary Advisory Council members will discuss the comments and do a summer study of the issues. The council meets again in October to adopt a "work plan on how to address all of the issues," Morton said.
The sanctuary will hold more public scoping meetings once it proposes actual management changes. So far, the sanctuary has only heard from anglers and mariners about what changes they want to see enacted.
Comments have ranged from limiting the number of personal watercraft tours, opening more areas to personal watercrafts, establishing more closed fishing areas, stepping up law enforcement, requiring boater education courses and closing fishing for certain species while they are spawning.
The review is an ongoing process, and the rules will not be finalized until 2015.
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. This is the first time the sanctuary has done a review of its rules.
Earlier this year, sanctuary managers 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.
At the same time, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials are reviewing the Backcountry Management Plan for refuges in the Florida Keys. Refuge officials are working closely with the sanctuary as the agencies have some overlapping jurisdiction. Refuge managers are holding their scoping meetings in conjunction with the sanctuary.
The Sanctuary Advisory Council will meet Aug. 21 at the Marathon Government Center.