SOUTH FLORIDA -- Environmentalists say the latest proposed Biscayne National Park General Management Plan doesn't go far enough in protecting the park's eastern reef track.
Conversely, fishermen say the plan, which would establish an almost 24-square-mile zone where a bevy of special restrictions would apply, is overkill.
But Park Superintendant Brian Carlstrom says those divergent opinions are a sign that the National Park Service has staked out the proper middle ground.
"I think it strikes a good balance between allowing for some fishing and trying to enhance some preservation measures for the reef," he said in a phone interview last week.
Biscayne officials will hold a public meeting Wednesday, Dec. 11, at the Key Largo Holiday Inn to discuss the management plan, which will guide governance of the 180,000-acre marine park for the next two to three decades.
The latest proposal is part of a planning process that has lingered since 2001. It calls for the establishment of the 23.8-square-mile special recreation zone, the southern boundary of which would be just a few miles northeast of the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo.
The zone would cover 8 percent of the park and would encompass a series of reefs that have declined in recent decades along with attendant fish populations, according to the park service.
Anglers fishing within the zone would have to acquire a special permit. The park service would limit those permits to just 430 annually for recreational anglers and 70 annually for guides. In addition, lobstering, spearfishing and grouper harvesting, all activities that are currently allowed, would be forbidden in the zone. Commercial fishing, which is also currently permitted in that area, would be prohibited as well for all species except ballyhoo.
The proposal is a compromise for Biscayne officials, who encountered a backlash in 2011 when they recommended a total fishing closure in two-thirds of what would now be the special recreation zone. Notably, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which regulates fishing in cooperation with the park, was a strong voice against that plan.
Still, Key Largo-based charter fishing guide Mike Makowski says the current plan goes too far. Limiting fishing in one area, he said, will only put more pressure on areas where it is less restricted.
"I think they should enforce the rules they have now rather than make new ones that they can't enforce effectively," said Makowski, echoing a common concern of guides who fish both Biscayne and Everglades national parks.
But Caroline McLaughlin, Biscayne restoration program analyst for the National Parks Conservation Association, took a considerably different position.
The reefs and reef fish of Biscayne National Park have been overstressed and overfished for decades, she said, referencing a 2001 University of Miami study that spoke of an "eminent collapse" of the resource. Meanwhile, studies have shown that no-take zones, such as the 151-square-nautical-mile Tortugas Ecological Reserve in the Dry Tortugas, are effective. In contrast, the special recreation zone is an untested management approach.
"We believe this new alternative is inadequate," McLaughlin said.
Carlstrom defends the proposal against critics from both sides. The plan calls for a review of the special recreation zone after 10 years. If it's not doing enough to restore the reefs and fish populations, there would be an option to implement a no-fishing zone, he noted.
He also chafed at criticism about alleged lack of enforcement within park boundaries.
"I take great offense to that," Carlstrom said. "We enforce regulations every day to the capacity we have."
He added that new rules wouldn't tax his crew of five or six rangers any further. The changes would simply make the rangers look for different things.
Wednesday's Biscayne National Park meeting at the Holiday Inn is scheduled for 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Attendees will be able to make formal comments on the proposal. The National Park Service is also accepting comments through Feb. 20 at the parkplanning.nps.gov/bisc website. Biscayne officials will begin preparing a final plan once the comment period is over.