Many tell marine sanctuary group that there are enough areas closed to fishing and no more are needed

kwadlow@keynoter.comMarch 29, 2014 

Key Largo commercial fisherman Ernie Piton, a Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary adviser, makes a point on access to the protected area at Carysfort Reef during a sanctuary meeting this week.

BY KEVIN WADLOW

A push to create a new no-take zone at an Upper Keys reef site called Snapper Ledge failed to find much traction with a Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary working group Wednesday.

Volunteer members of the Ecosystem Protection panel seemed to like the idea of eliminating a marginal Sanctuary Preservation Area more than creating a new one.

Sanctuary Preservation Areas, or SPAs, "are basically special-use areas for divers only," said Ben Daughtry, a commercial tropical-fish collector on the panel. "I think there are enough of those already."

Concerned divers first proposed Snapper Ledge as a new SPA in 2008, citing the large schools of fish there. Formal consideration was put off until the sanctuary's management plan undergoes its first major update since 1997. The plan-update process now is under way but is months from the finish line.

The Ecosystem Protection working group, essentially a committee of the Sanctuary Advisory Council, has been assigned the most controversial aspect of the update: Reviewing the existing network of the Keys sanctuary's marine managed areas, where most fishing and collecting is banned.

Group members convened Tuesday and Wednesday at the Hilton Key Largo Resort to review Upper Keys managed areas and other possible rule changes.

"We did not settle 100 percent of anything," member Chris Bergh said as the session closed with no formal votes.

Final recommendations from the board are expected to be made at a July 1-2 meeting in
Marathon, following local meetings to look at Middle Keys and Lower Keys areas.
On Wednesday, the Ecosystem Protection group reached general consensus on a recommendation for altering boundaries at the Carysfort SPA off North Key Largo.

Panel members agreed to add a no-take area for a deepwater spot known as a spawning site for black grouper, while moving the SPA's shoreward line to allow fishing in shallower water.

Members had problems with a suggestion to ban anchoring in all SPAs to further protect corals from damage. If approved, boats would be limited to using available mooring buoys or tying off other boats.

A buoy-only rule would harm Keys dive boats whose crews know how to anchor properly, said diver Joe Weatherby of Key West. Sea conditions occasionally require commercial boats to congregate at reefs less affected by the weather, he said.

"I'm hesitant to use the amount of mooring buoys to regulate how many people can be on the reef," Weatherby said.

Members said without adding more buoys, enforcement officers should more strictly enforce existing laws against allowing anchors to damage coral. "It's the googans in massive loads who are throwing hooks on the reef," Daughtry said.

Snapper Ledge, a relatively small area near Pickles Reef, is known as one of few notable Upper Keys reefs where fishing and spearfishing is allowed. Its dense fish population prompted the call for protection.

"Now is the time" for consideration as a new SPA, Bergh said.

Several Ecosystem Protection members said Snapper Ledge should remain open to all -- or closed to all.

"If it's such a diamond, shut it down," said fishing guide Tab Burke. "No more SPAs."

Weatherby said he hears "real debate about how effective" SPAs are when divers who may damage coral are allowed but fishermen are not. "It seems more like a half-baked political solution."

With some members backing the new SPA, "no consensus" was found on Snapper Ledge so it likely will come up again.

The Davis Reef SPA was suggested as a candidate for losing its no-take protection since the degraded area now sports relatively few healthy corals.

"If we were starting over, why would we have a SPA here?" asked Suzy Roebling.

The sanctuary should consider "getting rid of [protected areas] that don't mean much" to the marine environment, Weatherby said.

After hearing Davis Reef is targeted for a coral-restoration effort, the group dropped discussion of eliminating its SPA.

During public comment, several commercial fishermen urged the group to not create any new no-take areas. "Trying to fish under these conditions, it's hard for the younger [commercial] guys," said Gary Sands. "Who's going to protect them?"

The Ecosystem Protection working group has meetings planned:

-- April 17 and 18 at the Marathon Garden Club.

-- June 10 and 11 at the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center in Key West.

-- July 1 and 2 at the Marathon Garden Club.

The full Sanctuary Advisory Council will consider the working group's proposals later this summer, and make its recommendations to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Any changes eventually approved after a required environmental-impact statement probably will not take effect until sometime in 2016.

Snapper-grouper meetings in the Keys this week

Federal fishery managers want to chat with Florida Keys residents about the snapper-grouper fishery at three informal meetings this coming week.
South Atlantic Fishery Management Council staff will use information from the
"community port meetings" as part of its visioning for long-range planning.

About three-fourths of the dozens of species managed by the South Atlantic Council fall under the snapper-grouper plan, from grunts to Goliath grouper.

"The council wants people to feel they do have a voice in how the fishery will look 10 to 15 years from now," coordinator Amber VonHarten has said.

The meetings are planned to be more conversational than regular council meetings or hearings. Port meetings will be held from 4 to 6 p.m.:

-- Monday at the Gato Building, 1100 Simonton St., Key West.

-- Tuesday at Keys Fisheries, 3502 Gulf View Ave. (down 35th Street bayside) in Marathon.

-- Wednesday at Key Largo Fisheries, 1313 Ocean Bay Drive in Key Largo.

The meetings are open to all but seating may be limited. For more information, contact VonHarten at (843) 571-4366 or send an e-mail to amber.vonharten@safmc.net.

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