The breadbasket of Biscayne Bay isn't so bountiful anymore: There are fewer fish. The ones that remain are smaller. Shrimp trawlers have mowed rolling sea grass meadows to the quick. Sponges are almost gone. If there's coral, it's mostly rubble.
So Biscayne National Park -- a favorite fishing and scuba location for Upper Keys residents and visitors -- is proposing drastic measures: Phasing out commercial fishing in park waters, ending the beloved two-day lobster mini-season and imposing a host of new restrictions that park managers hope will revive the vast, 270-square-mile underwater wilderness that once teemed with bonefish, snapper, sea turtles and hundreds of other species.
"We recognize that this is a significant change to existing conditions and any time you're doing that, regardless of the topic, you're going to get resistance. It's just human," said park Superintendent Brian Carlstrom, who stressed the plan is "not something we propose to do overnight."
In fact, the proposed rules evolved at a glacial pace over 15 years as three different superintendents struggled to win support from the state, which manages wildlife in parts of the park, and balance the competing interests of environmental groups, anglers and commercial fishermen.
The park's general plan, a broader blueprint that will address more-contentious matters -- like whether to ban fishing entirely from some areas or weekend parties by boaters that scar flats and kill seagrass -- is still in the works.
For some, the fishing restrictions are long overdue.
"We need to change the rules so the babies can grow," Jesse Martinez, a 47-year-old Homestead truck driver, said last week as he coached his wife and son on a kayak at Convoy Point. "Twenty years from now, you won't see no fish if you keep fishing like this."
That's exactly the point the park service hopes to make with the new plan, which would take about a year to finalize but is drawing fire for being too restrictive.
In addition to ending the mini-lobster haul and making today's commercial fleet the park's last, changes would:
- Dramatically raise the catch size on popular fish, including some kinds of grouper and snapper, and lower the number allowed in an effort to increase fish populations by 20 percent.
- Outlaw spearguns and allow spearfishing only on tank-less, free dives to further boost the fishery.
- Establish no-trawl zones for shrimpers to restore seagrass and other bottom habitats.
- Make some reefs off-limits to lobster and crab traps to protect coral from the heavy damage caused by debris and tangled lines.
"The park represents the water and bottom, but the state still wants control over the fish," said Jack Curlett, who chaired a citizens committee that hosted public meetings on the plan and recommended changes. "The bottom line is it still is a national park, and it should be held to a higher level."
But state regulators, who endorse the plan, insist recreation must be part of the equation.
"One of our biggest concerns was to make sure there was still fishing," said Amanda Nalley, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "It's a balance between what the resource needs and what the users want."
Even with new restrictions, some conservationists say park managers are wimping out. When Curlett's working group was created, the state signed off on it only if members promised not to consider a no-take zone, or reserve.
"We feel like the only way to protect species is to have a reserve inside the old Monument," said Laura Reynolds, executive director of Tropical Audubon.
For now, park managers say they will deal with the no-fish zone in the broader general plan, which should be finalized this winter. Specifics for the fishery plan will be ironed out over the next year to 18 months as the feds and state begin the rule-making process, which will include public hearings.
One thing that is certain is phasing out commercial fishing, which commercial fishers argue will be devastating. Families, they say, will lose shrimping and trapping businesses handed down through the generations.
"It's always so easy to take a swipe at fishermen whether they're commercial or recreational," said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association. "It's going to have a severe socio-economic impact. We're talking generations of fishermen -- a cultural heritage."