Lower Keys flats fishing guides and personal watercraft tour operators have reached an agreement that could resolve decades-long user conflicts between the two groups.
Both sides of the issue will present the agreement Tuesday to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council at a meeting in Key West. The sanctuary and the U.S. Fish Wildlife Service, which oversees the wildlife refuges in the Keys, are updating their management plans. The reviews, which are the first in 10 years, could result in new rules for fishing guides and personal watercraft operators.
Sanctuary and refuge managers held a series of public workshops in June. At the Key West workshop, the personal watercraft operators presented a proposal that would have allowed them into areas of the refuges that they are currently prohibited from entering.
The proposal was met with opposition by fishing guides, who have historically complained about how personal watercraft operators are chasing off prize game fish such as tarpon, bonefish and permit.
Since the June meeting, the two sides have met several times to work on a proposal that dictates where watercraft can operate and spells out other rules. The proposal was finalized last week.
During tarpon season, personal watercraft guides "shall take measures to avoid fishing grounds and fishermen that may be fighting fish," the proposal states. The guides included a chart in the proposals showing exactly where those areas are.
The personal watercraft operators agree to "maintain a half mile distance from all fishing boats if possible" and to "stay off the mangroves near North Boca Chica," the agreement states.
The personal watercraft operators have also agreed to hold monthly meetings with guides "to bring current situations to light and to educate the new guides and tour operators," the agreement states. There is "a zero tolerance policy for (personal watercraft tour) customers drinking alcohol."
In exchange, the guides "agree to be patient and courteous with personal watercraft tours, guides and riders." Guides agreed to "not chase down and confront" tour operators, but "instead note the situation and call" members of the personal watercraft cooperative that brokered the deal.
"It's been a constructive process and I think it opens the door for continued discussion on how we can all be respectful of one another but most importantly respectful of the wildlife," said Capt. Will Benson, a member of the Lower Keys Guides Association, which brokered the deal. "Moving fast through sensitive habitat really affects the wildlife. So every season there were numerous conflicts between guides fishing and Jet Ski tours running fast through the areas where the tarpon like to hang out."
Benson said what is exciting about this agreement is that for the first time the Jet Ski tour owners sat down and tried to understand what the problems were and were open to the guides' advice on how to minimize pressure on the fishery.
Fury Water Adventures owner Scott Saunders, who represented the personal watercraft operators, called the proposal a "fair agreement."
"I think this is something we all can live with," Saunders said.
The review is an ongoing process, and the rules will not be finalized until 2015.
The advisory council meets at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the DoubleTree Resort in Key West, 3990 South Roosevelt Blvd.