PLANTATION KEY -- An almost united crowd of more than 150 people showed up at the Coral Shores High School auditorium last Wednesday to voice concerns about an Everglades National Park proposal to forbid combustible motor use in nearly a third of Florida Bay.
"You guys are putting us out of work," Islamorada backcountry fishing guide Ted Benbow told Everglades National Park Superintendent Dan Kimball and the handful of other National Park Service officials who attended the March 20 meeting.
The Park Service's proposal to designate 131,000 acres of the bay as pole/troll zones came as part of its draft General Management Plan released in late February. In development for a decade already, the plan will guide governance of the 2,400-square-mile park for at least two decades.
The areas that would be converted into pole/troll zones were identified by the park because they are two feet deep or less, making their flats and seagrass beds susceptible to boat groundings and propeller scarring. Numerous channels that cut though those zones would remain open to motor use, leaving 96 percent of the pole/troll zone acreage within a mile of deeper water, Principal Park Planner Fred Herling pointed out at the Coral Shores meeting.
A mile of poling and trolling, or even something close to that distance, is too long, countered several speakers.
"We fishing guides, we got to be able to produce," Benbow said. "We got to be able to get into an area, see if it is working, and get out."
Anglers also chafed that even with the channels that the park service has proposed to leave open, the plan would still close off key navigation routes, requiring far longer commutes to favorite fishing grounds.
Several suggested that instead of pole/troll zones, the areas be designated as idle speed zones, adding that electric trolling motors can often cause more damage to the resource than a combustible motor operated at slow speed.
In the end, said Stephanie Scuderi, a board member of the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce and Islamorada's District Advisory Committee to the Monroe County Tourist Development Council, the plan would cut into Upper Keys fishing tourism.
"They're going to go elsewhere," she said of avid anglers who come to the Keys to pursue gamefish. "And we're going to lose some of the drivers of our economy."
But while all but a couple of the nearly 30 people who spoke had misgivings about the park's proposal, the sentiment wasn't unanimous. Fishing guide John Kipp told park officials that he believes closing off a third of the bay to combustible motors would be good for both fish populations and business.
"It will turn Florida Bay into a refuge for gamefish," Kipp said. "It will be globally unique. There will be no other place on earth like it."
The proposed plan also calls for a mandatory boater education program for Florida Bay, which many anglers support, as well as the establishment of an advisory committee made up of Everglades National Park users and stakeholders, similar to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council.
The council would be a key player in park management, Kimball emphasized at Coral Shores, and would be used to implement management changes as new situations arise.
The Park Service is taking public comment on the proposed plan through May 12. A second Upper Keys public meeting is set for April 10 at the Murray E. Nelson Government and Cultural Center in Key Largo. Meetings are likely to be scheduled for Marathon and Key West as well, park staff said last week.
Kimball told the audience at Coral Shores that he is listening to their concerns.
"The science of idling and trolling, we'll take a close look at that," he said.