KEY LARGO -- Spurred on by concerns from the Ocean Reef Club, the Monroe County Commission passed a resolution last week opposing a federal proposal to heavily limit fishing on much of the Biscayne Bay reef tract.
The resolution states that the proposed 23.8-square-mile special recreation zone being proposed by the National Park Service would increase fishing pressure in surrounding areas.
The zone is a part of the draft Biscayne National Park General Management Plan, which will guide governance of the 180,000-acre marine park for the next two to three decades. Its southern boundary would be just a few miles northeast of the gated Ocean Reef community in North Key Largo.
"The special recreation zone is not palatable to Monroe County and that's the point we're getting across," Mayor Sylvia Murphy said at the Feb. 19 commission meeting.
Still, with the support of Ocean Reef, the resolution endorses the creation of a smaller closed area along reefs further north of the Keys. Local commercial fishermen opposed such as closure when the park proposed it in 2011.
The commission's unanimous passage of the resolution came one day before the Feb. 20 end of the National Park Service's public comment period.
Under the park's latest proposal, only 430 recreational fishing permits would be handed out annually within the special recreation zone. In addition, 70 permits would be allocated to guides. 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 the area, would be prohibited for all species except ballyhoo.
The National Park Service says the zone would protect several reefs that have been in decline in recent decades along with attendant fish populations. But the proposal is actually a compromise for Biscayne officials, who faced a backlash in 2011 when they recommended a total fishing closure in two-thirds of the proposed special recreation zone. Most significantly, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Recreation Commission, which regulates fishing in cooperation with the park, was a strong voice against that plan.
The FWC has said it would go along with the special recreation zone, but the proposal has divided other interested parties. At a meeting in Key Largo in December, fishermen said the zone would be just one more burden in a region that already features a plethora of restrictions and closed areas. Environmentalists have said it doesn't go far enough and that the closure that was proposed in 2011 would provide more protection to the resources.
In their push to do away with the special recreation zone proposal, the Ocean Reef Community Association fell on the side of the environmentalists. Closures are already a proven tool in rebuilding fisheries, ORCA President David Ritz told the Free Press in an interview. Because the closed area would be smaller than the special recreation zone, as well as further away from closed areas in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, it wouldn't lead to as much pressure on open fishing areas off north Key Largo, he added.
"We're concerned about the reef tract in north Key Largo getting overfished because of fishermen from Miami coming further south," Ritz said. "We're also concerned that there is an economic impact that is unknown."
With last week's conclusion of the public comment period, the National Park Service is now slated to begin working on it final management plan. Development of the plan has been underway since 2001.