Despite shutdown, National Marine Sanctuary open

Although the ongoing federal government shutdown has closed much of Florida Bay, the closure stops at state waters.

Waters of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, covering 2,900 square nautical miles from Key Largo to the Dry Tortugas, remain open for boating, fishing and diving.

Since the sanctuary comprises both federal and state waters, the area is jointly managed by the state of Florida and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. So that means, for example, you won’t get in trouble if fishing from your boat under the Seven Mile Bridge or your dock.

“State waters are always open to the people of the state,” said Joanna Walczak, a Florida Department of Environmental Protection coral-reef program manager and a state adviser to the sanctuary.

The situation is different in Florida Bay, where most of the bay north of the Intracoastal Waterway in the Upper Keys lies inside Everglades National Park boundaries. Also closed are waters in Dry Tortugas National Park and Biscayne National Park.

The closing of Everglades National Park means Florida Bay waters inside park boundaries technically are closed to commercial fishing guides, recreational boaters and tour operators.

Keys fishing guides who hold commercial-use licenses for Everglades waters received written notice to stay out of the park. No such notice has been issued to the dozens of dive operations or Atlantic Ocean offshore fishing charters in the Keys.

“Nothing like that has come down,” said Rob Mitchell of Keys Diver in Key Largo.

As the diving industry’s voting member on the Keys Sanctuary Advisory Council, Mitchell noted, “I think I would have been one of the first to hear about it.”

Local offices of the sanctuary, primarily funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have closed under the shutdown. Maintenance of boundary and mooring buoys and other routine tasks have been largely suspended.

Sanctuary Superintendent Sean Morton’s voicemail message says, “I will be unable to respond to messages until after the appropriations bill has passed and operations have resumed.”

However, sanctuary law-enforcement is contracted to a specific unit of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Those enforcement patrols in Keys protected waters remain active, FWC officers said Thursday.

State marine enforcement officers also are authorized to enforce any violations of federal conservation or environmental law they find beyond the formal limits of state waters, said Bobby Dube, FWC information officer.

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