A plan to create a large no-fishing zone within Biscayne National Park near north Key Largo could remain under review by federal officials until next summer.
The proposal to halt fishing in 10,522 acres of water, about six miles from Angelfish Creek on North Key Largo, has drawn fire from both commercial fishing and recreational fishing groups.
Conservationists say the park’s preferred alternative plan with a new marine reserve is long overdue and may not go far enough to safeguard coral and fish.
“The National Park Service’s own science clearly shows that fish numbers are down significantly, possibly to the point where they would be considered ‘impaired’,” said John Adornato, South Florida regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association.
“The park has to take significant steps to protect the coral and fish,” Adornato said Tuesday. “Maybe the marine reserve should be even bigger.”
Commercial fishermen speaking to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at the state agency’s November meeting in Key Largo offered sharply different views.
“They’re pushing us into a smaller and smaller area where we can fish,” said Key Largo lobster fisherman Ernie Piton, who works in the area. “It would be almost unacceptable…They want to phase commercial fishing out of the park.”
Key Largo lobster fisherman Walter Rentz told the FWC he fears other trappers driven out of Biscayne National Park waters will move south to already crowded Upper Keys waters.
“Don’t let the park do that to them,” Rentz said. “We’ve got enough park as it is. It’s getting ridiculous, we’re already pushed so tight.”
Since Biscayne National Park’s 164,000 acres of marine area includes state waters, the FWC is charged with assisting the Park Service in drawing fishing regulations for the area.
However, the Park Service also is required to follow its own fishery management plan to ensure that fish numbers remain “sustainable.”
The marine-reserve proposal is part of Biscayne National Park’s management plan, being updated for the first time in nearly three decades.
Public comment closed Oct. 31 for federal staff to assess and respond to concerns.
“I’ve heard there was a lot of support for the marine resource,” Adornato said, “but I’m sure other groups were not as supportive.”
A coalition of sportfishing groups including the Coastal Conservation Association and the International Game Fish Association objected to the marine reserve and possible fishing-access permits in its written remarks to the park.
“Conventional, equally effective and less restrictive fisheries management strategies should be evaluated and enforced before considering the implementation of marine reserves or other overly restrictive options,” the group said.
In a statement on the reserve, Park Superintendent Mark Lewis said, “Over the years, the park’s reefs and reef fish populations have undergone a dramatic decline in health and abundance. With a no-take marine reserve, we hope to be able to offer our visitors the opportunity to see and experience a healthy reef while improving fishing outside the proposed zone.”
Adornato said, “If half the trees in Sequoia National Park died, people would be freaking out and demanding dramatic action. The problem at Biscayne park is that most people don’t see the corals that are dead or dying. The park has do do something.”
Adornato said he expects the revised park plan to be released in mid-2012.