January 8, 2020

LONG KEY — Long Key residents concerned about a Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary proposal to establish a large no-take zone from shoreline to deep reef got support from Lower Keys fishing guides.

“Long Key is possibly the most ‘historically rich’ place in the Florida Keys for tarpon guides and anglers,” Doug Kilpatrick, president of the Lower Keys Guides Association, said in written comments sent to sanctuary staff. “It is critical that Long Key [can] be accessed for it sustains as many as eight skiffs during the tarpon migration.”

“That’s eight small businesses,” Kilpatrick said later. “It’s all poling so there’s no damage to the bottom.”

Guides from outside Long Key often trailer their skiffs to the area during tarpon migration, he said. “We also have members in our association who in live in Duck Key and Marathon,” a short boat run from Layton.

In the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s draft “Restoration Blueprint” intended to further protect marine habitats, staff recommends a new Long Key Tennessee Reef Sanctuary Preservation Area of 454 acres, up from the current 119 acres under protection, to safeguard “large, contiguous, interconnected seagrass, shallow hard bottom, aggregate patch reef, and deep, drowned spur-and-groove reef habitats, and provide a corridor for migration of different life stages of fishes from Florida Bay into the Middle Keys.”

Long Key captains Tracy and Tony Froitzheim wrote, “We were shocked to see that almost the entire length of Long Key out to Tennessee Light was recently added to the Blueprint as a complete conservation-preservation zone. … We can’t stress to you enough that this would be devastating to us and all Long Key and Lower Matecumbe [Key] residents.”

Several other Layton area residents voiced similar concerns over the potential 9.6-square-mile zone, which would be one of the largest no-take areas outside the Tortugas Ecological Reserve.

However, Cynthia Lewis, a Layton City Council member and deputy director of the Keys Marine Lab research facility there, said Long Key waters do need more protection than exist now, particularly on deeper reefs.

“These are America’s reefs,” she said. “They’re our responsibility.”

Kilpatrick of the Lower Keys Guides said fishing professionals stress catch-and-release for tarpon and bonefish off Long Key.

“The whole angling community fishes by poling a skiff in this area,” he said. “The removal of access to this area would have a significant economic impact on the Middle and Upper Keys community” and create crowding in nearby waters.

Will Benson, a Lower Keys guide named 2018 Volunteer of the Year by the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation for his work with the Keys advisory council, said at a December session that fishing guides stand “adamantly opposed to no-access areas” but could endorse catch-and-release rules.

In some popular spots in the Lower Keys backcountry, local guides said smaller areas recommended for expanded no-access rules — waters around East and West Bahia Honda, Water Keys and Horseshoe were noted — should be open to limited skiff poling.

“Guides and anglers need to be able to sh this area during high tides. We believe that the no-motor pole and troll option will provide the protection that the sanctuary wants,” suggests the association.

Comments needed

Earlier this week, sanctuary policy adviser Beth Dieveney counted more than 725 written and oral comments submitted or made during the last four months of 2019.

Written comments on the draft Restoration Blueprint end on Jan. 31, when state and federal officials will fine-tune the 581-page management plan and environmental-impact statement. A second round of hearings and comments will be heard when a revised plan is released.

As of Dec. 31, 477 written comments were posted on the federal regulations.gov website.

Three in-person information sessions in the Keys drew 102 written comments. Key West accounted for 77 of those.

Fifty speakers made oral comments at an Oct. 15 advisory council meeting in Key West, with an additional 13 written remarks handed in.

At a Marathon comment session, 23 people spoke and three submitted remarks.

Forty people spoke at a December advisory council meeting in Islamorada. Written comments from that sessions are still being logged. Eight people mailed letters directly to the sanctuary.

“It’s just not enough. … We need to see at least a 10-fold increase in public comments,” Sanctuary Advisory Council member Ben Daughtry said in December.