September 11, 2019

FLORIDA KEYS — Concern over losing access to three popular reefs surfaced in early comments submitted on the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary’s draft management plan.

Sanctuary Preservation Areas at Carysfort Reef off Key Largo, Sombrero Reef off Marathon and Sand Key off Key West have been identified as potential limited-use zones to test the effectiveness of creating a “carrying capacity” of divers and snorkelers.

One solution forwarded as a preferred alternative in the sanctuary’s Restoration Blueprint, the name for its draft management plan, would “restrict user access” in the three existing preservation areas “to Blue Star dive/snorkel operators.”

Some of the first written comments posted online at the sanctuary website targeted the limited-use suggestion.

“Would a Keys local with their own boat not be able to visit Sombrero at all unless through a commercial Blue Star operator?” asked Andrew Eales. “If so, is there an option for a recreational user to become a ‘Blue Star?’”

Blue Star certification for dive and snorkel boats now is limited to commercial vessels whose crews attend environmental training and enforce reef-protection standards for their customers.

“This proposal is based on increasing levels of overall use and in some areas, increasing concentrated uses that could impact both the condition of sanctuary resources and the user experience,” as outlined in Alternative 3, the sanctuary’s preferred plan in the Restoration Blueprint draft.

During the August roll-out of the plan, sanctuary staff listed other “mitigation strategies” that could protect the limited-use areas, including seasonal or spatial closures, limiting size of groups or boats, or changing mooring-buoy sites.

Sanctuary Superintendent Sarah Fangman said that an entry fee once considered for the limited-use areas has been dropped from the plan.

“There will be no entry fees,” she said.

Lower Keys resident Beth Ramsay-Vickrey wrote in a comment to the sanctuary program on limited-use that “it should not be the local who grew up here snorkeling [or] diving who the sanctuary now seeks to preclude.”

“The tourist-related commercial dive/snorkel industry responsible for dumping hundreds of tourists each day on our reefs is the concentrated use/over-use problem,” Ramsay-Vickrey wrote, “not the locals who have snorkeled and dove our waters and reefs for decades.”

Changes are likely in the management-plan update as state officials and residents offer their opinions. With more than half the 2,900-square-nautical-mile Keys sanctuary lying in state water, the Florida Cabinet and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will have significant input.

Additional information sessions will be held in the Florida Keys, where written comments will be accepted from the public. These take place at 6 p.m. Sept. 23 at Key West High School; 6 p.m. Sept. 30 at Marathon Middle/High School; and 6 p.m. Oct. 7 at Coral Shores High School on Plantation Key.

To speak to local Sanctuary Advisory Council members and staff, the council will have public comment at two meetings, Oct. 15 and Dec. 10. Originally scheduled for Marathon, the meetings now are planned to be held in Key West and in the Upper Keys.

The Oct. 15 meeting will take place from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Key West Marriott Beachside on North Roosevelt Boulevard. The agenda has not been finalized but public comment likely will be scheduled in the evening.

Location for the 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. Dec. 10 meeting in the Upper Keys will be announced when confirmed.

For the online version of the draft Restoration Blueprint, visit floridakeys.noaa.gov/blueprint/.

To submit or read written public comments on the potential changes, go to the sanctuary website or visit regulations.gov, docket NOAA-NOS-2019-0094. Comments will be taken until Jan. 31, 2020.

kwadlow@keysnews.com