Snapper Ledge protection is fast-tracked

A push to give a popular Upper Keys dive spot called Snapper Ledge more protection could gain support from a federal fishery agency.

Snapper Ledge, a shallow reef off Tavernier, could be declared a protected marine zone by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council.

Many Upper Keys divers, spearheaded by underwater photographer Stephen Frink, describe Snapper Ledge as a vibrant reef with diverse fish life, yet it is not designated as Sanctuary Preservation Area under the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

As of this week, 3,036 people had signed an online petition to change the Snapper Ledge status to a no-take zone. Efforts have been going on since 2008.

Amending Keys sanctuary rules to add a new Sanctuary Preservation Area involves reports and hearings that could take until 2015 at the earliest, sanctuary officials say.

“We’ve had requests from constituents to get it done more quickly, so in August we asked the South Atlantic Council to look into it,” said David Makepeace, an Upper Keys marine educator who serves on the Sanctuary Advisory Council.

“Much to my surprise, they said they would look into it,” Makepeace said. “Frankly, I did not expect this much action this soon.”

At a 4 p.m. Monday meeting at the Hilton Key Largo Resort at mile marker 97, the South Atlantic Council will take general comments on several issues, including whether the agency should begin working on a marine-protected zone for Snapper Ledge. A final decision would be months away.

“Personally, I support it,” Makepeace said. “I don’t want to create a precedent for using spot-zoning based on individual needs, but the Snapper Ledge situation and concerns are somewhat unique.”

Also Monday, the council also will review a proposal to establish 56 areas in Keys waters around protected elkhorn and staghorn corals where lobster-trap fishing would be banned.

The zones as proposed came out of talks between the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association, the Keys Sanctuary and local marine-conservation groups.

“We’re on board for almost of the zones, except for three,” FKCFA Executive Director Bill Kelly said. “We’re asking them to them to shrink those or break them into two or more zones to cover a smaller area.”

Those three include a large area off Newfound Harbor in the Lower Keys, one off Davis Reef near Long Key, and one inside Carysfort Reef off Key Largo.

“Fishermen are all in favor of protecting the coral but these three zones include a lot of ground where there is no [branching coral],” he said.

The South Atlantic Council also is considering creating new rules that could limit the use of powerhead fishing — using a spear that uses a shotgun shell to take large fish, or create a special permit for powerhead fishing.

For information on the proposed rules, go to www.safmc.net. No action will be taken at Monday’s meeting, but officials will explain various proposals and take comments.

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