Lobstermen endorse smaller no-take areas

A measure to ban lobster traps from a network of 60 small areas along the Florida Keys coral reef tract has earned a strong endorsement from a local commercial fishing organization.

“We are very much in agreement and support it wholeheartedly,” said Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association executive director Bill Kelly.

A proposed amendment to the federal Spiny Lobster Management Plan in South Florida waters that would create the new zones has been opened to public comment, running through June 26.

The new zones, which would allow diving and line fishing, seek to protect threatened elkhorn and staghorn corals from damage that could be caused by storm-tossed lobster traps.

“Staff from NOAA Fisheries Service and the [federal fishery management] councils worked with fishermen, scientists and managers to choose areas that would protect the most coral without overly restricting fishing,” says a National Marine Fisheries Service summary.

The combined area covered by the 60 areas covers a total of less than 6 square miles.

“We helped develop those sites so we’re very happy with the map as it exists,” Kelly said Tuesday. “Just about all the sites originally proposed were scrapped.”

Keys fishermen and conservationists said the original map covered too many sites devoid of hard coral, and overlooked other critical sites.

Two of the new zones take in experimental coral-reef nurseries being tended by restoration experts.

Kelly said fishermen, who generally avoid dropping traps near coral that could damage the gear, insisted on zones that would protect other corals expected to be classified as threatened in the near future.

A measure sharply disputed by Keys fishermen — a requirement that trap line be marked with color, to identify the fishery, by 2012 — has been delayed until 2017 for revision. Kelly said the Keys fleet would have been required to replace 8,267 miles of trap rope at a cost to the industry of about $19 million, based on an average trap having a buoy rope 90 feet long.

A working group will meet May 15 to consider alternatives to the first NOAA proposal.

“The Fisheries Service has given us wide latitude to consider new methods that would not create a financial burden to be labor intensive,” Kelly said.

A map of the no trap zones, which range from North Key Largo to west of Key West, can be found at http://gulfcouncil.org/resources/Spiny_Maps.php. Comments can be submitted in writing at www.regulations.gov.