The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council will focus on the challenges of enforcing fishing and boating regulations when it meets Tuesday in Key West.
Enforcing rules in the sanctuary is no easy task, as the sanctuary is roughly 2,900 square miles and there are only 43 Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) officers to patrol the waters.
FWC officers in the Keys are responsible for conducting boating safety checks, enforcing fishing regulations, administering sewage pump out rules, overseeing the removal of derelict and illegally moored boats, and conducting criminal investigations.
"A lot of that stuff really stretches the manpower," Capt. Dave Dipre said. "It can be overwhelming to take care of all of that stuff."
There are three Coast Guard stations in the Keys to back up the FWC, but that marine agency's main focus is search and rescue, and immigrant and drug interdiction.
Compiling the problem is the fact that sanctuary managers are operating at funding levels that have been significantly reduced since 2008 when the council's annual budget was $6.5 million. It has since been reduced to $4.3 million, according to Superintendent Sean Morton.
The budget reductions have forced sanctuary managers to reduce the council's science and outreach programs, but law enforcement operations have been kept at a consistent level, Morton said.
"We have had to reduce staff," he said. "We have tried to do the best with the resources that are provided to us."
Managers are conducting a 10-year review of the sanctuary's management plan, which could lead to changes or the creation of new fishing, diving and boating regulations.
The advisory council will hold a panel discussion Tuesday on the law "enforcement opportunities, needs, challenges for sanctuary and marine zone management." The panel will include representatives from state wildlife commission, Coast Guard, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and an attorney with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The panel discussion is designed to help provide context and direction on establishing what the law enforcement priorities should be and what, if any, new regulations should be imposed.
Inconsistency in fishing regulations have been an issue that Keys fishermen and law enforcement officers have had to deal with for years. In addition to sanctuary regulations, anglers must adhere to fishing rules set by the FWC in state waters, and the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico fishery management councils in federal waters.
Not all of the agencies have consistent fishing regulations when it comes to bag limits and closed seasons.
"Simple is the best," Morton said of fishing regulations. "It should be simple for the officer to enforce, easy for the public to understand, and easy for our outreach officers to explain."
The sanctuary advisory council will meet at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the DoubleTree Resort, 3990 South Roosevelt Blvd., Key West.