Mixing outrage and pleas of financial hardship, commercial fishermen and charter captains packed a Marathon meeting Monday to forcefully argue against proposals for new no-take zones throughout the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
"You're strangling us, slowly but surely strangling us," said Bill Harbaugh, an Upper Keys charter captain.
"This is a declaration of war against fishermen ... a vast overreach," said Upper Keys commercial fisherman Carlos Jimenez.
Taking the brunt of the collective anger from more than 100 opponents were volunteer members of the Ecosystem Protection working group, preparing a set of revised zoning maps to submit to the full Sanctuary Advisory Council.
After hours of public comment, the working group abandoned plans to vote Monday on recommendations for a network of new ecological reserves and preservation areas ranging from the Dry Tortugas to Carysfort Reef off North Key Largo.
"Everybody just now is getting wind of this," said Ernie Piton, president of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association and a member of the working group. "There's no way we're getting through this today. It's not possible."
"The whole thing's a meltdown," said Joe Weatherby, a diving representative on the working group.
"As soon as you start putting lines on that map, it's like a grenade," said Mark Chiappone, a Nova Southeastern University research scientist and sanctuary consultant. "That's where we are."
The working group -- which planned to deliver recommendations for new protected areas to the Sanctuary Advisory Council on Aug. 20 -- decided to hold off until after September, when it will stage regional meetings in the Upper, Middle and Lower Keys to meet with mariners who know the local waters. A fourth meeting in Key West will look at the Dry Tortugas and Marquesas.
Three former members of the original Sanctuary Advisory Council -- commercial fisherman Tony Iarocci, lawyer David Paul Horan and charter captain Bill Wickers -- spoke out strongly against the maps on the table Monday.
"This is deja vu," said Iarocci, a veteran of the acrimonious 1995-96 meetings on the Keys sanctuary's first management plan and no-take areas. "This is not the way to do this. I think it's ludicrous, I really do."
"We were told the Keys [sanctuary] would be different, that people would be allowed to keep living and working here," Horan said. "Now the very idea of being able to continue working here is slowly fading away.... People can't be here to tell you how bad they're hurting because they have to work."
Wickers said the first advisory council was urged to enact large no-take areas but compromised to create the zoning system in place since 1997.
"Save yourself a lot of enemies," Wickers said. "Right now it seems [the sanctuary system] is working. I don't see why you want to double the size of it."
Both charter and commercial fishermen said creating new ecological reserves, much larger than the Sanctuary Preservation Areas at popular reef sites, would concentrate fishing pressure in smaller areas. More closures would "saturate other areas" with lobster traps, commercial fisherman Gary Nichols said. "This is the most ludicrous map I've ever seen."
Islamorada's charter fleet would "beat the hell out of unclosed areas because that would be the only place they can fish," guide Greg Eklund said. "You can't enforce the areas you have now.... There are tons of options without these draconian closures."
"I've been to more fisheries meetings than I ever cared to," said Lower Keys commercial fishermen George Niles. "This is the first one I've ever been to where it was 100 percent in opposition."
The speakers found a common theme in advocating water-quality improvements, more law enforcement on the water, and boater education.
Working group members said the draft maps were sketched out to meet objectives for marine habitat preservation outlined by the full Advisory Council. Their recommendations were built using scientific reports presented at the group's previous meetings, they said.
Fishermen dismissed "the science" as uninformed and possibly biased.
Working group members acknowledged the panel's sparsely attended meetings could have been better publicized and held after working hours.
As an advisory group to an advisory council, the members noted that any recommendations put forth would undergo extensive review and modification. No new regulations for the Keys sanctuary are expected to be enacted before mid-2015.