November 6, 2019

JOHN HOWE photo
Boats gather at Tavernier Key on a good-weather weekend. John Howe says if anchoring is banned in a proposed management area, more mooring buoys and enforcement will be needed.

JOHN HOWE photo Boats gather at Tavernier Key on a good-weather weekend. John Howe says if anchoring is banned in a proposed management area, more mooring buoys and enforcement will be needed.

FLORIDA KEYS — More than 300 comments on the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary’s draft management plan have hit the in-box of a federal regulations website.

The sizable majority of them acknowledge concern for the marine environment, but contend the sanctuary’s preferred-alternative scenario threatens recreational boating and livelihoods.

“I’m all for some more to be done, but the sweeping changes and the theft of public boating opportunities is going way too far,” Mark Kerns of Key West wrote in a comment posted at regulations.gov on Oct. 24.

Key West charter captain Rio O’Bryan wrote, “I do agree with protecting our waters so my kids will be able to enjoy it as I have, but these new no-boat zones you are wanting is not the answer. … Almost all the people that go to these places care about our waters very much. … I think it’s a good thing that you guys are trying to figure out a way to protect our waters, but closing all of these locations to locals is not the answer.”

Dan Gilroy of Big Pine Key said additional enforcement, mooring buoys and education would help the marine ecosystem. Until then, he advocated the “no change” alternative.

“Taking away the peaceful enjoyment of this resource from many law-abiding citizens to deal with the few that violate the sanctity is not the correct or appropriate approach,” Gilroy wrote.

A commercial fishermen of 40 years, Robert Elkins said sanctuary staff should focus on promoting Everglades restoration “as we live downstream of this mess.”

“I want no new closures that are proposed to popular boating destinations in the sanctuary. I am totally against the sanctuary getting involved in fisheries management of any kind. That should be managed by the state and federal fisheries councils only,” Elkins wrote. “Taking away rights that have always been granted is a sure-fire way for the sanctuary to become more vilified than ever.”

Sugarloaf Key dive instructor Debbie Wetzel wrote, “I’ve seen the devastating destruction of our reefs and fishing. … Yes, we need to do something now. … But to take away recreational areas like Marvin Key, Snipe Key, Sawyer Key, Tarpon Belly, etc. is NOT the way to fix this. These areas are cherished by the locals and tourists.”

Comments supportive of the sanctuary’s Restoration Blueprint plan were fewer, and many posted as “anonymous.”

“Our beautiful marine sanctuary is dying. … It may be too late to bring it back. Nonetheless, we should try,” said one unsigned comment. “The sanctuary needs to follow the science and provide protection to as many places as possible. … There is plenty of water for recreation and protection. There will be nothing left to protect if action is not taken. … The Florida Keys will be a dead zone.”

The writer said a name was withheld “because of the hostile environment at the public comment sessions. People who advocate for protection were intimidated and did not speak. … The climate was so confrontational.”

John Howe generally endorsed the sanctuary staff’s recommendations “to establish at least a few more no-take zones to give the sanctuary a better shot at resisting and maybe even recovering from the many negative human impacts now bombarding it from all sides.”

Howe also noted that popular nearshore areas, like Tavernier Key, attract large numbers of boats on holiday and good-weather weekends.

“If … the no-motor zone around Tavernier Key is enlarged and also becomes a no-anchor zone, you’ll need to install a LOT of mooring buoys and significantly increase public education and enforcement,” he said.

People can voice their opinions in oral or written comments during a listening session from from 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 6, at Marathon Middle/High School on Sombrero Beach Road.

The last scheduled Monroe County in-person comment session is scheduled during a 1 to 9 p.m. Dec. 10 meeting of the Sanctuary Advisory Council at the Islander Resort in Islamorada.

During an October advisory council meeting in Key West, more than three hours of public comment was offered.

Another round of comment sessions will be scheduled after state and federal officials settle on proposals for the final plan.

Online comments will be taken until Jan. 31, 2020. To read or submit comments online, go to regulations.gov, docket number NOAA-NOS-2019-0094.

Gulf Council comments

At a meeting in late October, members of the federal Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council heard a presentation on proposals for the 3,800-square-mile Keys sanctuary, and a plan to increase the size of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary from the current 56 square miles to 160 square miles.

“The [Gulf] Council asked that the interactive map tool being used to display the proposed changes allow users to access the coordinates of the proposed marine zones and fathom lines,” a report says.

Some fishers at Keys meetings also said having coordinates for the marine zoning would be helpful.

Gulf Council members asked for additional time to consider its comments at an upcoming meeting, “given the complexity of the proposal.”

kwadlow@keysnews.com