Council may open new area near Fort Zach

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council agreed to consider opening up a small area off Key West to personal watercraft, which is part of the Key West Wildlife Refuge and where it is currently prohibited.

The council agreed Tuesday at its Key West meeting to consider the proposal because it would keep the personal watercraft operators from traveling through a seasonal tarpon fishing area off Fort Zachary Taylor State Park in Key West. Also, watercraft operators were rewarded by the council for making a series of concessions and agreed to not go into other areas around the island that are home to tarpon and other game fish.

The proposal comes out of an agreement between the Lower Keys (Flats) Guides Association and personal watercraft tour operators to resolve decades of user conflicts between the two groups. The agreement sets up closed areas and other protections for flats fishermen and reduces the number of people who can participate in a personal watercraft tour. In exchange, the guides have said they support opening a small area of the wildlife refuge off Fort Zachary Taylor State Park.

The Sanctuary Advisory Council agreed to have its staff review the proposal and possibly allow the rule change. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials, who are reviewing their rules in conjunction with the sanctuary, would ultimately have to sign off on allowing personal watercraft in Keys refuges.

The sanctuary and the Guides Association did not agree to a separate proposal by the personal watercraft operators that would allow a larger area of the Key West Refuge just west of Key West Harbor to be traversed by the operators. They requested access to a rectangle-shaped area off the harbor called Pearl Bank.

Sanctuary Advisory Council members did not support the request. Instead, it applauded the tour operators for working with the guides and making concessions, but several advisory council members did request that the tour operators require their tour guides have captain’s licenses, which is currently not required.

“The leaders of these tours should have captain’s licenses,” said council member Don Kincaid, who has been a licensed captain and ran catamaran tours for several decades. “You have a person leading a group of 20 other people who does not know the rules of the road. They are leading with ignorance. They are completely unqualified.”

The sanctuary and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuge managers are reviewing their rules to determine if they need to be changed or updated. Sanctuary and wildlife refuge managers have been taking public comment, and the review process is expected to be completed by 2015.

The two groups began meeting jointly following a public workshop the sanctuary and refuge managers held in June.

Since that meeting, both sides have met several times to work on a proposal that dictates where watercraft can operate and spells out other rules. The proposal was finalized last week.

Much of the agreement deals with protections for tarpon season. Personal watercraft guides “shall take measures to avoid fishing grounds and fishermen that may be fighting fish,” during tarpon season, the proposal states. Personal watercraft tour operators will stay out of areas in May where sea worms are hatching. Guides target the tarpons feeding on the worm hatchlings.

The personal watercraft operators agree to “maintain a half mile distance from all fishing boats if possible” and to “stay off the mangroves near North Boca Chica,” the agreement states.

The personal watercraft operators have also agreed to hold monthly meetings with guides “to bring current situations to light and to educate the new guides and tour operators,” the agreement states. There is “a zero tolerance policy for (personal watercraft tour) customers drinking alcohol.”

In exchange, the guides agreed to opening up the small area off Fort Zachary Taylor and “to be patient and courteous with personal watercraft tours, guides and riders.” Guides agreed to “not chase down and confront” tour operators, but “instead note the situation and call” members of the personal watercraft cooperative that brokered the deal.

The sanctuary advisory group has set up several working groups to look at specific rule changes and will hold more public meetings before any rule changes are made.

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