February 12, 2020

FKNMS photo
Ben Daughtry, a Marathon fish collector who serves on the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council, speaks at a December meeting. The SAC board meets Feb. 18 in Marathon to discuss options for the sanctuary's new management plan.

FKNMS photo Ben Daughtry, a Marathon fish collector who serves on the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council, speaks at a December meeting. The SAC board meets Feb. 18 in Marathon to discuss options for the sanctuary's new management plan.

FLORIDA KEYS — Thousands of comments from fishing and diving interests, ocean-protection groups and Florida Keys residents reached the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary before a Jan. 31 deadline for submissions about the proposed new management plan.

At 9 a.m. Feb. 18, the sanctuary’s Advisory Council will convene in Marathon to start “identifying priority issues for making recommendations to [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] for creation of a draft rule.”

The open meeting takes place in Marathon at Isla Bella Beach Resort on Knights Key Boulevard. A public-comment session is scheduled for 4 p.m.

In the final days of the period for online and mailed comments about the Restoration Blueprint, sanctuary staff heard a wide range of opinions, ranging from outrage over too many proposed rules and closures, to conservationists who advocate for more protective measures in the 3,800-square-miles of ocean and backcountry.

The National Parks Conservation Association delivered hundreds of one-page form letters from individual members who agreed, “The threats to the Florida Keys’ marine environment are greater than ever and immediate action is needed to protect Sanctuary resources.” Specifics on “fully protected, no-fishing marine reserve areas that protect habitat and biodiversity” and other recommendations followed.

The Boat Owners Association of the United States (BoatUS) sent a letter on behalf of its “more than 650,000 members nationwide and over 150,000 members in Florida” to express concern that “extensive restrictions on access will discourage visitation to [sanctuary zones] and may have the unintended consequence of shifting boating activities to other nearby areas.”

The group also worried that proposed large go-slow areas and no-anchoring zones are “far too restrictive for a number of traditional boating activities.”

The Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association cited a need to improve water quality and boater education, along with hiring more marine patrol officers.

“Capt. Ernie Piton stated resolving these problem areas would remedy most, if not all, of the obstacles the sanctuary is now dealing with,” wrote executive director Bill Kelly. “Yet the 585-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement does not contain one single word addressing these issues.

“Presently, there are a total of three NOAA law enforcement officers assigned to the 2,900 square [nautical] mile sanctuary with supplemental law enforcement provided by FWC personnel. However, over the past three years the sanctuary has cut supplemental funding to FWC by more than half, from over $800,000.00 annually to just over $300,000. In spite of this, the sanctuary seeks to increase its footprint by an additional 700 miles.”

Lad Akins, a former staffer with the Florida Keys chapter of the nonprofit National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, and Key Largo dive operator Rob Bleser both cautioned about proposed “idle speed” zones around the reef tract.

“It is not feasible for a watercraft to maintain ‘idle speed’ in open water where wave action and currents are effects. ‘Idle speed’ will not allow a mariner to safely operate/navigate the vessel,” Bleser wrote.

He added, “Some of the suggested expansions of existing [sanctuary preservation areas] make sense, but there are navigational issues to be considered. … Professional users with local knowledge of the areas should be recruited to assist in design and placement of those boundaries.”

Akins recommended a rule on “no anchoring within 100 [meters] of a mooring buoy … sanctuary-wide to prevent damage to nearby sensitive habitats. If a habitat is sensitive to anchor damage, the sanctuary can place a mooring buoy at that location. This would replace the proposed large area no-anchoring zones and the no anchoring in SPA provisions.”

Other boaters and fishers objected to the suggested 132-square-mile area off Key Largo where no anchoring would be allowed.

The Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association opposes closing several flats to catch-and release fishing.

“Flats fishing is a sustainable industry with low environmental impacts. As such, the FKNMS plan should consider facilitating, rather than limiting, this marine use and the habitats that support it,” Commodore Steve Friedman wrote.

Fishing groups and many Long Key residents vehemently protested a proposed shoreline-to-deepwater zone around Tennessee Reef.

Reef Relief, a nonprofit based in Key West, asked for a revision of a proposal to allow only sanctuary Blue Star-certified commercial dive boats on three popular reefs. “Instead of limiting access to Blue Star operators, it may be more effective to limit access by factors such as boat size, capacity and level of use.”

The status of recreational boats in those three areas — Carysfort Reef, Sombrero Reef and Sand Key — was not directly addressed by the sanctuary draft.

The Restoration Blueprint plan also will be scrutinized by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission board, which regulates fishing in state waters. Members have already has expressed doubts about some aspects of the NOAA proposals.

kwadlow@keysnews.com