Sanctuary and refuge managers have started the tedious process of going through public comments and will be developing proposals for new closed fishing areas and other possible rule changes.
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuge managers are reviewing all their rules to determine if changes need to be made. It's the first time since the sanctuary was created in 1990 that the rules have been reviewed, and the first time in 10 years since refuge managers have reviewed their rules.
The Sanctuary Advisory Council met Tuesday to discuss the public comments, which were presented to the group in a 138-page report. On Wednesday, Sanctuary Superintendent Sean Morton and Florida Keys Refuges Manager Anne Morkill met with a core group of advisory council members to start putting together a "work plan," which will guide the next phase of the review process, Morton said.
"We have received the scoping comments and will now put together a work plan and address the issues brought forward," Morton said. "We now know what people want and now we have to do decide how to tackle this ... . It gets harder and harder as the process moves forward. It keeps building on itself. We have a lot of work to do."
Morton has urged the Sanctuary Advisory Council members to spend the next two months reviewing the public comments and going through the "Condition Report." Earlier this year, sanctuary managers released the report, which is the first 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 is the main science document guiding the review process, Morton said.
In the next year, Sanctuary Advisory Council members will met with fishermen, divers and watersports operators about specific rule changes. It is unclear if the meetings will be part of regular Sanctuary Advisory Council meetings or special meetings on their own, Morkill said.
"It's going pretty slow," Morkill said. "Packaging alternatives are still a year away. We are having a lot of discussion about process."
The sanctuary held three major scoping meetings in the Keys in June. 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 sanctuary and refuge managers will also meet with the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Councils and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, as some of the suggestions fall under those agencies' jurisdiction and those agencies would have to implement the changes.
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.
The review is an ongoing process, and the rules will not be finalized until 2015.