Proposals to create half a dozen new ecological reserves in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary waters go to the vote of a working group July 29 in Marathon.
Draft recommendations raised at the Ecosystem Protection working group, a study panel of the Keys Sanctuary Advisory Council, including greatly expanded no-take areas running from shore to the deep reef at:
"We were given our marching orders by the Sanctuary Advisory Council, and part of that was look at the existing ecological reserves and Sanctuary Preservation Areas and the potential for new ones that are warranted," said working group Chairman Chris Bergh. "We've discussed what's good and bad about the various ideas, heard each other and the public. Now we get to our vote, and which will help the SAC understand how much -- or how little -- support there is."
Documents prepared by the Ecosystem Protection working group, which consists of SAC members and volunteers from interest groups, emphasize the proposals have not been approved.
"We've heard a lot of science at our group and the scientists are telling us that [reserves are] the way to go," said member Suzy Roebling, a Tavernier conservationist.
"We've seen that it works in the Dry Tortugas," Roebling said. "The difference in just a few years has been amazing."
Ecological zones are designed to protect an entire marine habitat, from nursery areas in shallow water to spawning aggregations on reefs more than 120 feet deep.
Only three ecological zones exist now -- the Sambos off the Lower Keys, and Tortugas North and Tortugas South in the Dry Tortugas.
Proposals for expanded reserves will run into opposition from commercial fishermen and some recreational fishermen already wary of losing more fishing grounds.
The working group is charged with making recommendations to the full Sanctuary Advisory Council as part of the sanctuary's update of its management plan.
The SAC is expected to receive the working group's plan in August, then discuss it in detail at a November meeting.
After the SAC takes its November votes, federal staff will go over advisory recommendations for feasibility. Any changes to the current marine zoning in the sanctuary will return to the Keys for a series of public hearings.
No new regulations are expected to be enacted before mid-2015.
The sanctuary currently has 18 Sanctuary Preservation Areas, known as SPAs, that focus on protecting specific reef systems. Suggestions made at the Ecosystem Protection working group would be linking some SPAs off Key Largo.
One proposal endorses combining the Elbow, Key Largo Dry Rocks and Grecian Rocks into one preservation area. Another recommends linking the Molasses Reef and French Reef SPAs, currently separated my more than a mile of unzoned water.
Diving advocates also seek creation of a new SPA that would cover Snapper Ledge, Pickles Reef and the Pillar Coral Patch off Tavernier.
The Ecosystem Protection working group meets at 9:30 a.m. July 29 at the Marathon Garden Club.