In a bid to calm fears and share the process, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary staff and advisers will stage new meetings on updates to the sanctuary's rules and management plan.
"There will be a lot more communication and transparency so at least people can be informed before they get mad or make recommendations," said Joe Weatherby, a Lower Keys dive-boat captain and sanctuary adviser.
At a Tuesday meeting in Key West, the Sanctuary Advisory Council decided to hold four September meetings so residents can focus on suggested marine-zoning changes in their respective areas of the Keys.
The meetings are planned Sept. 23 in the Upper Keys, Sept. 24 in the Middle Keys and Sept. 25 in the Lower Keys. A Sept. 26 meeting in the Lower Keys looks at the Marquesas and Dry Tortugas. Locations and evening start times are being determined.
The process to update the management plan, now in place for nearly 20 years, slowed July 29 when more than 100 people, mostly commercial fishermen and charterboat crews, turned out for a sanctuary working-group meeting in Marathon to protest early-stage draft plans for creating new no-take ecological reserves and expanding sanctuary preservation areas.
Recommendations for reef and deepwater preserves were drafted by the volunteer Ecosystem Protection working group. No votes have been taken by the Ecosystem Protection working group or the full Advisory Council on changes to marine zoning.
Working-group members say maps that sparked the July 29 protest were intended as starting points for discussion.
The Advisory Council meeting Tuesday in Key West drew a large crowd, with many voicing strong opposition to creating no-fishing areas.
"People seemed to relax a bit when they realized nobody is trying to shut down the Keys," Weatherby said. "I'm in the tourism business so the last thing I want to do is put anybody out of business. But I think part of staying in business is preserving our ecosystem."
Working-group members plan to meet Sept. 30 to discuss results of September's regional sessions, and craft a report to the full SAC.
That report will be presented to the full Advisory Council at a public Oct. 15 meeting at Islamorada's Islander Resort. No vote on the marine-zoning plan is expected in October.
In November, the council plans to hold three sessions to "provide information on all the Advisory Council work-plan items for the marine zoning and regulatory review."
The Sanctuary Advisory Council meets Dec. 11 and Dec. 12 to vote on issues and marine-zoning areas they want to see considered when sanctuary staff writes its environmental and economic-impact statement.
The Advisory Council does not have regulatory authority but its recommendations generally are given weight by sanctuary managers. Any recommendations from the council will reviewed locally and in Washington, D.C. No new regulations or zoning areas are expected to be enacted before mid-2015.
For information and background on the process, go to floridaKeys.noaa.gov.