A Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary committee will reconvene on Thursday to start developing recommendations on closed areas and other issues tied to fishing and diving regulations.
The sanctuary's Ecosystem Protection Working Group will hold 12 more meetings between Thursday and July 2. The group will discuss the effectiveness of the sanctuary's current protected areas, and the possible need for more areas or to expand or shrink existing closed areas.
The sanctuary is currently reviewing its management plan, which could lead to changes in regulations.
The working group began meeting last year. It ran into opposition from angry fishermen in August, as some group members generated a map outlining hundreds of miles of closed fishing areas.
The outcry motivated sanctuary managers to hold a series of public meetings in September to reassure fishermen that their voices are being heard, and that no new closed areas would be established without considerable amount of public discussion and science to justify the closures.
"One of the challenges of dealing with an extended public process is the recommendations are not yet formulated," Sanctuary Superintendent Sean Morton said. "People tend to gravitate toward the worst-case scenario. Maybe it's a fear of the unknown. It leaves a vacuum for rumors. ... There are no formal recommendations about changes to existing zoning schemes."
The issue of closed areas was slated to go back to a working group and then the Sanctuary Advisory Council for a formal vote, but the government shutdown last fall put the whole management review process on hold. The sanctuary decided to postpone the working group meetings until this week.
The working group meetings are not designed to be public scooping hearings, but there will be time set aside for public input at each meeting. The meetings are more intended for the group to review data and formulate recommendations, Morton said.
Before making any recommendations, the group will review spawning aggregation studies, examine satellite and mapping data, and hear from marine biology and fishery experts.
"It's time for the working group to start working," Morton said.
The first meeting will be at 9:30 a.m. Thursday at the Marathon Garden Club, 5270 Overseas Highway.