HOMESTEAD -- Nearly one-third of Florida Bay would be turned into protected pole/troll zones under a management plan proposal released by Everglades National Park officials last week.
"We think weighing all the requirements the park has, which is first and foremost to protect the resource and to preserve public access, this is a reasonable way to move forward trying to meet both of those goals," Principal Everglades Planner Fred Herling said last Thursday.
The proposal, to make 131,000 acres of the bay off limits to combustible motors, is contained within what the National Park Service has labeled as its "preferred alternative" for the park's next General Management Plan.
In development for a decade already, the General Management Plan will guide governance of the 1.5 million- acre park for at least 20 years.
Anglers chafed at the proposal in interviews last week.
"I think it has gone way, way beyond reason," said avid Islamorada fisherman Sandy Moret. "My question is, preferred by who?"
Herling said the boundaries of the proposed pole/troll zones were established to capture areas of the bay that are two feet deep or less at mean low water. Keeping powerboats out of those areas, he said, would guard against groundings and destruction of seagrass beds, which serve as nurseries for numerous species of fish, crustaceans and more.
Areas within 100 yards of both the mainland shoreline and islands in the bay would also be off limits to motors, a measure that would protect nesting grounds for the bay's wading bird colonies.
Park officials made a concerted effort to exclude important navigational channels from the proposed zones, Herling said. He added that 96 percent of the areas that comprise the zones are within a mile of deeper water or a channel and 78 percent are within a half mile of a motor zone.
The proposal went over well with Pete Frezza, an Audubon of Florida ecologist based out of the nonprofit's Plantation Key office.
"I think we have to continue to do this if we want to continue to have fisheries in the bay," Frezza said.
But Moret isn't the only angler who is troubled by the potential closures.
"It's just basically going to make parts of the park inaccessible for me," said Key Largo backcountry fishing guide Lain Goodwin. "A mile is a really long distance on a push pole. Obviously, it will affect our ability to fish those areas and concentrate the boats into less water."
Everglades officials began developing the General Management Plan in 2003. Last Wednesday, however, marked the first time that the Park Service has identified a preferred plan. Aside from the pole/troll zones, the plan would maintain closures of areas of northern Florida Bay that are currently limited to researchers. It would also shut down an area of the northeast bay, called Long Sound, to all but paddlers.
Additional steps would also be taken to protect the bay and other portions of the park. Chiefly, the plan calls for the establishment of an advisory committee, similar to the Florida Keys National Sanctuary Advisory Council, made up of local users and stakeholders. The council would be used to help the park implement changes to the management plan as new situations and problems arise.
Everglades officials have also proposed a mandatory boater education program for Florida Bay -- a concept that received widespread support when the management plan was last debated publicly in 2009.
The mandatory education would extend not only to motorized vessel users, however, but to all boaters, including paddlers.
Implementation of the proposed management plan would cost $40.8 million for improvements parkwide, including at the Flamingo basin and at park facilities in Chokoloskee, along the Tamiami Trail and elsewhere.
Annual operating costs would be $22 million. Changes outlined in the plan would be implemented gradually as funds became available, Herling said.
The Park Service is taking public comment on the proposed plan through May 12. Comments can be submitted online by going to http://parkplanning.nps.gov and selecting Everglades National Park. Everglades officials will hold meetings to discuss the proposal at Coral Shores High School in Islamorada on March 20 and at the Murray E. Nelson Government and Cultural Center in Key Largo on April. 10.