There were no shortage of opinions Thursday among a Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary committee on how they should go about planning for the future of closed areas and other fishing and diving regulations.
The first in the sanctuary's Ecosystem Protection Working Group meetings brought to bear the challenges facing the group. The opinions expressed by frustrated fishermen, dive guides and other leaders over how to best protect the Keys' most valued natural resource were often pointed.
Those present discussed the effectiveness of the sanctuary's current protected areas, the possible need for more protected areas, and whether to expand or shrink existing closed areas.
Officials are currently reviewing the sanctuary's management plan, which could lead to changes in regulations. Everything was on the table for discussion, said Sanctuary Superintendent Sean Morton, who stressed the group needs to get to work developing real recommendations that will best serve everyone's interests -- a hard task.
Among the most vocal participants early in the discussion was Ernie Pitton, an Upper Keys trap fisherman and president of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association, who called for better law enforcement of existing no-take and protected areas before additional changes are made.
"I see boats anchored in the coral on a daily basis," Pitton said. "Now, we're getting charged with making new zones when we have areas not getting protected now. They're not being enforced. I see it on a daily basis. It's frustrating as a fisherman. I'm not ready to give up (close) bigger zones because they're not being enforced now."
Pitton's comments came on the heels of a Sanctuary Advisory Council meeting last month in Key West where the issue of law enforcement was discussed at length. The issue before Thursday's meeting was solely changes to protected areas, said Advisory Council member Chris Bergh, who is also the Keys program manager for The Nature Conservancy.
"The Sanctuary Advisory Council is the bigger, broader entity focused on the issues of law enforcement and water quality," Bergh said. "If we go deep into the issue of law enforcement, we will never come up with anything on zoning."
Mimi Stafford, a Lower Keys commercial fisherwoman, and Joe Weatherby, a Lower Keys boat captain, agreed that the restructuring of closed areas could be better managed.
That may mean smaller or more strategically located no-take zones, which could open up other larger areas, but everyone stressed the group has much to discuss before any official recommendations are made.
"Admittedly, the lines were drawn some time ago for political reasons; let's get that out of here and get more bang for our buck with the limited resources we have," Weatherby said.
Stafford added: "Let's have definable areas that we can actually enforce so we can say, 'This is what happens when we do it right.'"
"We need to intelligently design important spots that will be easier for law enforcement to enforce," said working group member Suzy Roebling of the Upper Keys. "This is what we can be working on."
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 the ongoing 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.
The 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.
Before making any recommendations, the group will review spawning aggregation studies, examine satellite and mapping data, and hear from marine biology and fishery experts.
The working group will reconvene at 9:30 a.m. today at the Marathon Garden Club, 5270 Overseas Highway.