Florida Keys marine sanctuary officials on Tuesday agreed on nine "priority issues" they will grapple with during the current review of its management plan.
The issues include coral reef ecosystem restoration, seagrass and shallow water habitat protection, ecological/preservation areas, adaptive management and permit procedures, permitting for more shipwrecks and other artificial reefs, boundary adjustments, resolving personal watercraft/Jet Ski user conflicts, maintaining and/or improving water quality and fishery management.
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council also agreed to look at the need for more law enforcement, furthering outreach programs, instituting user fees and possibly requiring boating education courses.
The sanctuary and the U.S. Fish Wildlife refuges managers in the Keys are reviewing their management plans and rules to decide if changes need to be made. Neither has updated their management protocols in roughly 10 years. The two agencies are working in concert as they have overlapping jurisdictions.
The Sanctuary Advisory Council (SAC) met Tuesday in Key Largo to establish the core issues to be reviewed. The council also agreed to set up working groups to tackle each of the different issues. The meetings will be open to the public.
The working groups will make recommendations to the council on how to handle each issue it is assigned.
"This is our attempt to get our hands around this," Sanctuary Advisory Council Chair Ken Nedimyer said.
Sanctuary Superintendent Sean Morton called the issues "significant topics." He urged the council to narrow down the topics as much as possible.
"There is a lot to tackle," Morton said. "We need to pay attention to what the public cares about, but also what advisory council members want .... There is a lot of work to do."
Morton acknowledged that the management review will require a lot of staff time and input from other experts elsewhere.
The sanctuary, which is overseen by the federal government, partners with the state as well. The state Legislature and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will have input on rule changes.
"We are going to go to Tallahassee to make sure they understand," Morton said.
Flats guides and personal watercraft operators are not waiting for the Sanctuary Advisory Council to dictate to them what the rules for personal watercrafts will be. The two sides have been in discussions to work out conflicts between the two user groups in the Lower Keys.
The two sides first sat down together in June after sanctuary managers held a public meeting in Key West and have met several times since then to come up with an agreement about territory, boating etiquette and impacts on wildlife and fishing migrations, and how the two groups can coexist on nearshore waters.
At the December SAC meeting in Key West, flats guides and tour operators will give a joint presentation on the issue and proposals that would resolve conflicts between the two sides.
The agencies are reviewing all their 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.
Also on Tuesday, the Sanctuary Advisory Council briefly discussed the proposed dredging project in Key West Harbor.
Council member Bruce Popham asked the council if it wanted to take a stand on the issue. It declined to take a formal stand.
Nedimyer argued that the council did not put the issue on its agenda and it would be unfair for the council to take a position on Tuesday without hearing from the public or hearing presentations from the interested parties. However, the council did not rule out taking a stand on the issue in the future.
Morton reiterated that sanctuary regulations currently prohibit dredging. The Key West City Commission will meet tonight to discuss whether to move forward with a study that will determine whether dredging to widen a portion of the ship channel can and/or should occur in Key West Harbor.