The Florida Keys are the largest commercial seafood hub in the state, in terms of revenue, and third largest in the country, bringing in more than $100 million a year.
The Keys also have one of the largest recreational and for-hire charter fleets in the state. And the region is the largest harvester spiny lobster and stone crab claws.
However, the Keys have never had true representation on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).
Up until last year, Miami lobbyist and part-time Upper Keys resident Rodney Baretto served on the board for 10 years. Despite not living in the Keys full time, Baretto was seen as doing a good job representing the Keys' interests, fishermen and conservationists said.
Currently, there are three seats on the board awaiting Gov. Rick Scott's appointment.
The terms for FWC Commissioners Kathy Barco, Ron Bergeron and Ken Wright are up, and only Bergeron has applied for his seat again.
Keys residents Bruce Popham, Bill Kelly, Mike Puto and Christopher Buckley have submitted their name for appointment to the FWC. When Gov. Scott visited Marathon last year, he told several people that he understood how important the Keys were for fishing and diving and would like to see someone from the Keys appointed to the board, Kelly and Popham said.
"We are cautiously optimistic that he will pick someone from the Keys," Kelly said.
Kelly is the executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association, serves on the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council and is a former charter boat captain out of Islamorada. If selected, Kelly said, he would be the only board member that fully understood and represented commercial fishing interests.
The board is responsible for setting rules for both commercial and recreational fishing.
"In a discussion with Gov. Scott on fisheries management this past summer, we addressed the need for Monroe County/Florida Keys representation on the commission and especially the enormous economic role the commercial fishing industry plays in Florida and the Southeastern United States," Kelly said. "I have worked closely with all of you over the years on fishery management issues important to all of us. I believe I have demonstrated a fair and impartial approach on all topics with an emphasis on cooperation and solutions."
Popham owns Marathon Boat Yard and also serves on the Sanctuary Advisory Council, of which he is the former chair.
"I think we really need true representation form the Keys," Popham said. "The governor said he wanted someone with small-business experience and who understands fisheries issues."
Buckley, an Islamorada resident, graduated from the Harvard Law School and was a partner at Gibson, Dunn Crutcher, one of the largest law firms in the United States. He founded and has chaired the firm's Environment Natural Resources Practice Group.
Buckley represented the Atlantic Salmon Federation in its successful petition to have the Atlantic salmon listed as an endangered species in the few remaining Maine rivers in which it spawns. He is a member of the board of the federation and was a member of the executive committee of the board of the Environmental Law Institute. He is an avid fly fisherman and fishes for tarpon, permit and bonefish in Florida and also serves on the board of Bonefish Tarpon Trust.
Puto is former Marathon city manager and director of community services for that city. He is a former Monroe County commissioner, too, and served as a volunteer firefighter in Marathon.
"Hopefully he will appoint one of us," Puto said. "It is hugely important that we have representation."
Scott has roughly 500 appointments awaiting his decision and it was unknown this week when he would get to the FWC appointments, his staff said.