Marine sanctuary group considers lots of new protected wildlife management areas

kwadlow@keynoter.comJune 7, 2014 

A plan going to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary's advisory council for review June 17 proposes to double the number of wildlife management areas in nearshore waters.

Regulations in the 27 existing wildlife areas typically limit boats to low speeds, require no-motor access or ban entry altogether to protect birds, seagrasses and flats fish.

One suggestion from the Shallow Water Working Group, a subcommittee of the full advisory council, would create an idle-speed area running along much of Marathon's Atlantic Ocean shoreline to protect flats and fish species.

The Marathon Guides Association endorsed such an area a decade ago. The current proposal would not limit speeds in existing access channels or waterways like Vaca Cut.

"We're not cutting off any access. All the guides want is for people to use common sense," group President Richard Grathwohl said Friday. "At high water, people have been jumping the flats instead of going out the channels."

"Jack Tar Flat used to be a go-to spot for bonefish in the winter," he said. "It's dropped off over the years because the fish have been run over so many times."

Jeff Knapp, a fishing guide who specializes in tarpon at the Seven Mile Bridge, said the proposed zone covers too much water. "To make that whole area a no-wake zone, even when nobody is in there fishing, is ridiculous," Knapp said.

Off Islamorada, a nearshore mangrove island best known as the Horseshoe, would require all boaters and paddlers to stay at least 100 yards away to avoid bothering nesting waterbirds and roosting frigates.

The Shallow Water Working Group will recommend creating 24 new wildlife management areas, ranging from El Radabob Key and Rattlesnake Key off Key Largo to Woman Key in the Marquesas.

In the Upper Keys, that includes small Pigeon Key north of Key Largo, and the northwest corner of Barnes Sound, in addition to the Ed Radabob area near Garden Cove.

Banks along the Seven Mile Bridge's Moser Channel should be a slow-speed area to reduce frequent groundings that damage corals, sponges and seagrass, the working group said.

An area called Gulfside Banks North Marathon, north of Duck Key, was endorsed either as a no-take research zone or a slow-speed area.

A Lower Keys basin near Key Lois (formerly known as the notorious Monkey Island) off Bow Channel has been proposed as a pole, troll or idle-speed area. A new area in the Content Keys was recommended, along with wildlife areas at Pearl Basin, Marvin Key, Demolition Key, Wilma Key, Mule Key, Archer Key and flats at East Barracouta Key and West Barracouta Key.

Boundary or rule changes are suggested for 21 existing wildlife areas.

Two existing management areas -- at Little Crane Key in the Content Keys, and Pelican Shoal southeast of Boca Chica -- should be eliminated, the working group said. In both cases, shallow islands that allowed cormorants and other birds to nest have washed away.

Any decisions made by the Sanctuary Advisory Council, meeting in open session at 9 a.m. June 17 at Hawks Cay Resort on Duck Key, will be reviewed by state and federal officials as part of the Keys sanctuary's management plan update.

The June 17 meeting also will include consideration of plans for restoring damaged reefs by using staghorn corals grown at underwater nurseries.

Any changes that eventually emerge from the review process likely would not take effect before 2017, says a sanctuary timeline.

Full details can be found at the Working Group area of the Keys sanctuary's website, FloridaKeys.Noaa.gov.

Reef areas

The sanctuary council's Ecosystem Protection Working Group, reviewing offshore marine protected areas, has not finished its report.

That group has encountered opposition from commercial and recreational fishing interests opposed to any new or expanded no-take zones.

The Ecosystem Working Group meets at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday and Wednesday at the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center in Key West to look at recommendations for the Marquesas region.

On July 8 and 9, Ecosystem Protection Group members gather in a public meeting at the Marathon Garden Club to prepare its final report on all areas of the Keys for presentation to the Sanctuary Advisory Council later this year.

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