Input on possible fishing closures sought

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary will hold four meetings this week to tackle the controversial subject of possibly closing off more areas to fishing and diving.

Sanctuary officials agreed to the four additional meetings to address the issue last month after fishermen and divers loudly voiced their opposition to a series of maps that proposed new closed areas and the expansion of existing closed areas.

The meetings will be held in the Upper, Middle and Lower keys, so that all fishermen and others countywide can weigh in. The sanctuary’s Ecosystem Protection Working Group members will consider the input in formulating their recommendations on closed areas and other protections.

Even if the working group recommends the new closed areas, the full Sanctuary Advisory Council would still have to approve the changes, which would then be subject to an environmental and economic impact study by the federal government.

The sanctuary and U.S. Fish Wildlife refuges managers in the Keys are going through a 10-year review to determine if rules need to be changed.

One of the more controversial proposals includes closing off Western Dry Rocks Reef to fishing in order to protect mutton snapper, black grouper and permit fish spawning populations. As a compromise, the group is also considering possibly closing or reducing the bag limit at Western Dry Rocks in April, May and June, during the spawn.

“It’s a multispecies spawning area,” said group member Don DeMaria, who supports setting aside the area. “It’s not asking too much to set aside a spawning area in a national marine sanctuary.”

DeMaria cited English author Izaak Walton’s book from the mid-1600s called “The Compleat Angler.”

Walton wrote: “But above all, the taking fish in spawning-time, may be said to be against nature; it is like taking the dam on the nest when she hatches her young: a sin so against nature, that almighty God hath in holy writ made a law against it.”

“People knew 300 years ago that targeting fish when they spawn was bad,” DeMaria said.

Florida Commercial Fishermen’s Association Executive Director Bill Kelly argued that mutton snapper and grouper stock assessments show the fish do not need any more protection. He added that those types of decisions should be made by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in state waters and federal fishery management councils and National Marine Fisheries Service in federal waters.

“There is no science supporting or warranting additional widespread closures for fishery management purposes,” Kelly said. “Concerns over high extraction rates of mutton snapper at Western Dry Rocks is a law enforcement issue.”

The Commercial Fishermen’s Association does support setting aside areas for coral nurseries in the Keys, he said. The association agreed to closing several areas to commercial lobster and crab trap fishing more than two years ago when federal fishery managers put in protections for elkhorn and staghorn coral, which have been listed on the federal Endangered Species List.

Draft maps by the working group also included increasing the size of some sanctuary special protection areas, such as Sand Key and Rock Key off Key West, and in the Marquesas Keys in the Key West National Wildlife Refuge. The recommendations also proposed establishing a new special protection area, which would close the area to fishing, on Snapper Ledge off Key Largo.

The draft maps proposed expanding the Tortugas Ecological Reserve in the Dry Tortugas, which was set aside in 2001 to protect snapper and grouper spawning populations.

Sanctuary Superintendent Sean Morton encourages fishermen, divers and the general public to attend the meeting.

“This is a way to come and meet the working group and Sanctuary Advisory Council members and learn about the process,” Morton said.

The sanctuary will hold four meetings this week, all from 5 to 8 p.m.

The Monday meeting will be at Key Colony Beach City Hall. The Tuesday meeting will be at the Key Largo Hilton. The Wednesday and Thursday meeting will be at the DoubleTree Resort in Key West.

The Ecosystem Protection Working Group will then meet and discuss the proposals and closed areas at 9 a.m. Sept. 30 at the Marathon Garden Club.

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