Marine sanctuary, wildlife refuges revamping plans

The time has come to talk rule changes and boundary shifts for protected waters in the Florida Keys, say federal managers.

A lengthy process to review regulations with an eye on possible changes ramps up this week for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Keys national wildlife refuges.

“This is the start,” sanctuary Superintendent Sean Morton said Friday. “We’ve heard about a lot of different issues over the years. This is the time to address them.”

The marine sanctuary has released dates for its initial hearings in June, but Morton noted, “People can comment right now if they want.”

In a related series of meetings, four environmental groups jointly hold open meetings this week “to promote public input on marine and backcountry island rules,” according to The Nature Conservancy.

This week’s sessions provide history and background of the current rules for the sanctuary and refuges, and will focus on the “process to gather ideas about what is working, what’s not, what needs tweaking and what entirely new ideas people have for management and regulations.”

Lower Keys areas to be reviewed are the Key West National Wildlife Refuge and Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge.

Save-A-Turtle in Marathon, Friends and Volunteers of Refuges on Big Pine Key, Reef Relief in Key West and The Nature Conservancy cooperate on this week’s informational sessions:

LI 7 p.m. Tuesday on Big Pine Key at St. Francis in the Keys Episcopal Church on Key Deer Boulevard.

LI 7:30 p.m. May 7 in Marathon at the Turtle Hospital, mile marker 48 bayside.

LI 6:30 p.m. May 10 in Key West at the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center at the Truman Waterfront.

Keys marine sanctuary sessions will be held June 19 in Marathon; June 20 in Key Largo; June 21 in Key West; June 26 in Miami; and June 27 in Fort Myers. Written comments also may be submitted.

Members of the Keys Sanctuary Advisory Council have started making the rounds of local groups and media outlets to outline the two-year regulatory review.

“We’re reaching out to all the major stakeholders — tourism, diving, fishing, scientists,” Morton said. “Everybody realizes that the entire economy here is tied to the health of the marine environment in some way.”

With the exception of creating the Tortugas Ecological Reserve, the sanctuary has not significantly altered its marine zoning no-take areas or its general regulations in 15 years.

“It’s time,” Morton said. “We have some new science and condition reports to show what’s working and where changes may need to be made.”

Advocates for creating a new Sanctuary Preservation Area at Snapper Ledge in the Upper Keys have been active for several years, but few other specific changes have been suggested.

“We are looking for public input,” Morton said. “This is the time to get the issues on the table.”

Suggestions taken at the meetings and written comments will be reviewed by federal staff and the Sanctuary Advisory Council, and distilled into draft plans that will go to additional comment. For information on the sanctuary process, go to http://floridakeys.noaa.gov.