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Conch-Style Rebellion In The Making? Changes In Fishing Rules In Keys Sanctuary Drawing Fire

A reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

New rules for the troubled reefs and turquoise waters that make up the vast marine sanctuary that surrounds the Florida Keys are threatening to spark a Conch-style uprising. 

More than a thousand residents showed up at a Key West meeting in September to review the plan that expands boundaries at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and increases restrictions on a park that helps pump $4 billion into the state economy. At a Key West City Commission meeting earlier this month, critics complained the rules might be grounds for another rebellion.

“A 21-mile traffic jam started the Conch rebellion,” Key West attorney David Paul Horan said, referring to the 1982 stand-off with federal officials. “This is way beyond a 21-mile traffic jam.”

Horan - a founding member of the Conch Republic who led the legal battle to unsnarl a traffic jam caused when U.S. Border Patrol agents set up a checkpoint to snare illegal immigrants - complained that the preferred plan backed by sanctuary officials risks crowding out some areas of the park by restricting access to many others.

The plan calls for increasing the number of preserves - established to protect environmental resources like reefs and seagrass, shipwrecks or other archeological sites - from 57 to nearly 100. Restrictions within the zones vary from limited access for motorized boats to anchoring rules.

“Feeding fish in your canal is going to get you in trouble. Night fishing using the mooring buoys, it's prohibited. Twenty-nine years later, [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] has suddenly realized that bait-fishing is no longer 'consistent with sanctuary goals and objectives,'” Horan complained. “Common sense is lacking and all these new no-access, no-entry zones.”

But sanctuary officials and conservationists argue additional restrictions are needed to protect a 2,900-square nautical mile area - which houses the largest inshore reef tract in the U.S. - from growing threats.

An unprecedented new disease outbreak that first appeared off Virginia Key in 2014 has traveled down the tract past Key West, decimating many of the boulder coral that help build the reef. Increasing ocean temperatures also threaten to worsen bleaching events. Increased boat traffic is also threatening seagrass beds.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, more than 30,000 of the 1.4 million acres of seagrass in Monroe County have been scarred by boat propellers ripping into grass. The meadows provide not only important habitat for bonefish and other sportfish that draw anglers from around the world, but a menagerie of birds, including ospreys, roseate spoonbills and pelicans.

“We’re looking to protect habitats in a more effective way and some of that is limiting use,” said sanctuary spokeswoman Gena Parsons.

With more than 5 million visitors a year, she said the plans strives “to strike that balance between economy and ecology.”

The proposed plan is the first major update to sanctuary management since the original rules went into effect in 1997, seven years after the sanctuary was created in an effort to protect the ailing reef and seagrass meadows. NOAA has prepared four alternatives, ranging from no change in rules to the most prohibitive. Sanctuary officials are backing alternative three, but sanctuary officials say they want to work with boaters, divers, anglers and others who use the sanctuary to strike the best balance.

"We've effectively, through our [former] management plan, concentrated the use in certain places....There's a lot of mooring buoys in a very small location. And so we're putting all of those people into the water at once," said sanctuary reef ecologist Andy Bruckner. "What you need to do is spread this out."

But Keys Charter Boat Association President Brice Barr complained a shake-up at the sanctuary in 2016 - after former superintendent Sean Morton was reassigned amid complaints of a hostile work environment - has made getting information difficult and strained relationships. Sarah Fangman, a marine biologist who had managed the Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary in Georgia, replaced Morton.

“She does not know the economy. She does not know the areas. She does not know the people that this will affect,” Barr told Key West commissioners. “As many of you saw with the turnout and the Key West High School on September the 23rd, there are a lot of concerned citizens that don't want this to move forward.”

Using preserves and restricted zones to help reefs, seagrasses and fish populations recover is not a new idea. In 2007, a preserve was created in Dry Tortugas National Park to help ailing reefs and dwindling fish populations. Scientists later found that grouper and snapper had not only grown more abundant, but increased in size.

But convincing the public and the fishing and boat industry can be challenging, said National Parks Conservation Association associate director Caroline McLaughlin.

After nearly 15 years of wrestling with conflicting interests, Biscayne National Park adopted a management plan in 2014. The plan included expanded preserves to protect the park’s reefs, but fishing rules have yet to be enacted after state officials, who share management of fish, balked. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and former Sen. Bill Nelson even joined forces to propose a federal bill that banned enacting fishing restrictions in the park.

“We have decades of science pointing to the severe decline in Biscayne resources. And we also have science saying that what they're putting forward is going to be insufficient to protect Biscayne fisheries over the long run,” McLaughlin said. “Unfortunately, it seems to fit into a pattern of fisheries management in South Florida that reflects too little action too late.”

Ideally, McLaughlin said rules across the two areas would work together to protect fish, reefs and seagrasses.

“There's absolutely a need for increased collaboration in terms of how we're managing fisheries and marine areas,” she said. “Absolutely what happens in terms of health of resources in the sanctuary is going to impact the health of Biscayne National Park and vice versa. They are part of a very interconnected ecosystem - the Florida reef tract - and of course the fish and the resources are not going to abide by human-made boundaries.”

Florida wildlife regulators and park officials completed a draft of new rules for the park in July that are now open to public comment. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is holding meetings Oct. 28, 29 and 30 in Key Largo, Homestead and Miami. For more information, visit www.myfwc.com.

The sanctuary has also planned additional meetings for its proposed plans on Oct. 28 in Coral Gables, Nov. 4 in Fort Myers and Nov. 6 in Marathon. Times and locations can be found at floridakeys.noaa.gov/blueprint.