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Federal judge orders Biscayne National Park to publish rules for long-stalled marine preserve

Only 6 percent of reefs remain in Biscayne National Park. A new preserve would help protect them from overfishing.
Shaun Wolfe
Biscayne National Park
Only 6% of reefs remain in Biscayne National Park. A new preserve would help protect them from overfishing.

This story was updated with a response from the National Park Service.

Long-stalled plans to create a controversial marine preserve in busy Biscayne National Park to protect fragile areas from overfishing must be put in place as soon as possible, a federal judge ruled.

The preserve was initially approved in 2015 under a new park management plan that took 15 years to iron out. The plan left in place rules for 90 percent of the park. But state officials, who co-manage fishing rules in the national park, balked at enacting stricter rules across a 10,500-acre preserve, or about 6% of the 270-square mile park.

On Friday, Judge Rudolph Contreras ruled the National Park Service and the U.S. Department of Interior broke the law by failing to implement the preserve.

READ MORE: Biscayne National Park is getting new fishing rules

“Overfishing, pollution, and climate change impacts have dealt serious blows to Biscayne National Park in recent years. Marine wildlife populations are teetering on the brink of collapse. A revered coral reef ecosystem, one that supports a diverse range of species from sea turtles to snappers, hangs on by a thread,” National Parks Conservation Association Sun Coast Director Melissa Abdo said in a statement. “Thanks to this ruling, national park advocates have a chance to restore this beautiful marine national park to its former glory.”

On Thursday, a park spokesman said the park service was reviewing the court order and does not comment on active litigation.

Over the years, the 270-square mile park near urban Miami has been slammed by heavy fishing and boat traffic. Seventeen different species of fish have suffered steep declines, with their numbers dropping by 70%. Only 6% of the park’s reefs remain. Seagrass on shallow flats that provide habitat for young fish and feasting grounds for bonefish and sea turtles are marred by at least 11,000 scars from boat propellers.

At the time the management plan was created, park officials said the size and number of popular fish species would need to increase by 20 percent to make fishing sustainable. Since then, the park and its reefs where popular grouper and snapper are caught, has been slammed by stony coral disease and, most recently, an ocean heat wave the bleached shallow water coral.

Under the proposed reserve, fishing would be off-limits except for invasive lionfish which could still be speared. Other activities will be allowed. Boaters can tie off to mooring buoys that will be added. Snorkeling and diving will be permitted. The plan also expands idle speed zones east of Elliott Key in an effort to save seagrass and reduce accidents at the popular weekend spot. Idle speed zones are also being extended along the mangrove coastline on the mainland.

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Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environment Editor. She has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years. Contact Jenny at jstaletovich@wlrnnews.org
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