July 31, 2019

KEY LARGO — In places, Biscayne National Park waters lie only about a mile from Angelfish Creek in north Key Largo.

Rules for fishing, diving and lobstering could change to protect resources inside the 272-square-mile park, pending action by state and federal managers. Areas like Broad Creek and Caesar Creek are inside Biscayne National Park.

At 6 p.m. Aug. 8, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission staff will hold a workshop at the Murray E. Nelson Government and Cultural Center at mile marker 102 on Key Largo to explain the proposals and take comments.

“Park managers face a variety of management and environmental challenges stemming from the [park’s] proximity to highly-developed urban areas, including reduced water quality, marine debris, vessel groundings and fishing pressure,” FWC Marine Fisheries director Jessica McCawley said in a background report.

Suggested steps could include closing lobster mini-season in the park, along with “creating coral reef protection areas and no-trap areas.” Spearfishing could be regulated.

Minimum size for fish harvests could be increased by 20 percent for some popular species. In Biscayne water, if approved, a red grouper would have to be 24 inches long, rather than the current 20 inches. Two inches could be added to yellowtail snapper, to 14 inches.

“There is no doubt that the entire Florida Reef Tract, including Biscayne National Park and the Florida Keys, is losing fish at a rapid, unsustainable rate, and that serial overfishing is the culprit,” Jerry Ault, chairman of the University of Miami’s Department of Marine Ecosystems and Society, said in a statement from the National Parks Conservation Association. “Our research shows that the majority of reef fish populations are overfished and severely depleted, some literally on the verge of collapse.”

No-take marine reserves like those in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary may be required, Caroline McLaughlin of the Sun Coast NPCA said.

About 90 percent of Biscayne’s waters are managed jointly by the park and FWC, but there is an offshore area lying entirely within the Keys sanctuary’s jurisdiction.

In previous discussions, Keys commercial fishermen expressed concern that closing areas of Biscayne to lobster trapping will bring more Miami-Dade boats into the Keys.

Flats guide James Koch, who fishes out of Ocean Reef Club, said that as a catch-and-release specialist, he probably would not be affected.

Information from the Aug. 8 meeting, combined with a 6 p.m. Aug. 7 meeting at Florida City’s city hall and an Aug. 6 session in Coral Gables will be presented to the FWC board for consideration.

A memorandum of understanding between state and federal agencies in the multi-jurisdictional waters expired in 2014. Previously, the FWC recommended against marine reserves as being “overly restrictive” in waters adjacent to a highly populated South Florida coastline.

However, no-take areas could be considered if “less restrictive measures have been tried and have failed to accomplish mutual goals for the park.”

kwadlow@keysnews.com