Citing higher needs and lower government budgets, members of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council raised the controversial topic of user fees Tuesday.
"It's a difficult road to slog but I think there's a lot of support for doing something," Council Chairman Ken Nedimyer said at the group's meeting at the Islander Resort in Islamorada.
Council member Rob Mitchell, an Upper Keys dive operator, supports the concept but expects a "hailstorm" of opposition.
"The only alternative is watching our reefs continue to decline," Mitchell said. "People are using the resource for free. We've got to make a move and take a stand now."
The council has no regulatory authority, and would need approval from both the state and federal governments. The approval process likely would take "years," Mitchell said. "If we don't get started, it will never get going."
"Every year the sanctuary budget gets cut," Nedimyer said.
At press time, council discussion on forming a working group to explore possible funding systems continued. Proceeds could be dedicated to increased marine law enforcement, coral restoration, mooring buoys and other projects directly benefiting reef survival, member said.
"I don't think it will get support if a nickel is spent outside the Florida Keys," said Joe Weatherby, a dive operator and council member. "We've got way more issues that we can pay for."
Council members Richard Grathwohl and Weatherby said any user fee could not target only commercial operators. "Everybody who enters the water pays," Weatherby said.
Possible ways of collecting the fee were discussed, such as medallion-style programs or surcharges on fishing and boating licenses.
User fees were discussed during writing of the original Keys management plan but the issue was put aside. No other federal marine sanctuaries impose user fees. "But it always comes up," said Sanctuary Superintendent Sean Morton.
Some Caribbean nations impose fees to use marine parks.