Keys county commissioners asked to support Sanctuary referendum

In November 1996, a nonbinding referendum calling for the dissolution of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary — created by Congress in 1990 following a series of ship groundings on the reef — passed by more than 50 percent of the vote. It came as a surprise to both opponents and supporters of the ballot initiative.

Seventeen years later, the editorial staff of a major Florida recreational fishing lifestyle magazine is calling for a similar question to be put to Keys voters.

Doug Kelly, contributing editor of Florida Sportsman Magazine, supports the idea and goals behind the Keys sanctuary, but says environmental and dive interests have taken things too far by seeking to restrict more areas from fishing.

The magazine sent a letter to the five-member Monroe County Commission asking them to support a referendum that asks voters to pass “a resolution halting or at least tabling for now additional areas closed to recreational fishing.”

The request is in reaction to a review being conducted by officials and stakeholders of existing regulations in preparation for a revised sanctuary management plan. As part of the first major update to its management plan since 1997, the Keys sanctuary will consider changing existing marine protected areas or adding new ones.

This has commercial and recreational fishing interests worried.

A long list of changes suggested by the Sanctuary Advisory Council and its committees — including proposals for new no-take areas, large and small — generated strong opposition from people in the commercial fishing industry and sportfishing business at meetings in late July and August.

The Keys economy depends on fishing revenue. Kelly said there is no need to make more places off limits to angling since existing catch, size and slot limits, as well as seasonal species closures, have helped maintain a healthy fishery.

“Many citizens in and out of the Keys are alarmed at the prospect of dozens of more closed-access areas being considered by the federal government for the” sanctuary, Florida Sportsman wrote to commissioners.
Karl Wickstrom, founder and editor in chief of Florida Sportsman, called no-take zones “a copout. They’re an easy way for a lot of managers who don’t know any better.”

“Good fisheries management is really easy,” Wickstrom said. “Eliminate large catches and treat everyone equally.”

Larger fish should not be taken, Wickstrom said, because they are needed to spawn younger generations.
The sanctuary is under the umbrella of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which itself is under the U.S. Commerce Department. Following the series of ship groundings, Congress created it in November 1990 to protect species and habitat living in the 2,800 nautical square miles surrounding all of the Keys.

Kelly said the sanctuary should continue to be concerned about the reef, which continues to decline in health, as well at the vital seagrass fields. Both are suffering even though fishing pressure has eased dramatically over the past three decades, Kelly said.

Most of the Keys fish species “are either in plentiful supply or recovering regionwide by catch limits under existing federal and state fisheries management plans,” Kelly said.

Rift with divers

Kelly calls it hypocritical that commercial and recreational anglers in the Keys have to steer clear of protected zones that are “crowded with dive boats.” Allowing diving in areas that are supposed to be protected from human impact “puts politics over conservation,” Kelly said.

Florida Sportsman sent the letter to the County Commission in late September, but two commissioners interviewed for this story said they had not seen it. Regardless, getting a voter initiative on the November ballot is an uphill battle, say even those who support the effort in principle.

Mayor Sylvia Murphy, who thinks some of the current recommendations made by environmental and dive interests on the advisory council go way too far, said the initiative doesn’t have a chance if it is nonbinding.
Ironically, this may be the fault of the last referendum on the issue. So many people supported it, but were disappointed when it didn’t carry any weight, Murphy said.

“Since that day, if you want to have a referendum, that’s the first thing they ask, ‘is it binding,’” Murphy said.
The 1996 referendum easily passed, even though federal government and environmental groups outspent supporters in campaign ads 10:1, Kelly said.

Even though Murphy doesn’t back another referendum, she said the sanctuary is taking too much of an anti-fishing stance, which she said could have severe implications on the Keys economy. She compared sanctuary managers to an old boss she had working in a drug store when she was younger.

“He was a great manager, but he didn’t want anyone shopping in the store because he didn’t want them messing up his shelves. That’s what the sanctuary has become,” Murphy said. “They want everyone to sit on the shore and admire the scenery. It’s really getting bad for the people who make a living out there. I would like to see it loosen up quite a bit.”

One of Murphy’s colleagues on the dais, Commissioner George Neugent, disagrees with her assessment of the sanctuary, but agrees there should not be a referendum. Neugent, who represents the Middle and Lower Keys and is a former member of the Sanctuary Advisory Council, said science, not emotion, should guide the council as it moves forward with revisions to the management plan. And he said it’s not the County Commission’s place to inject itself into the debate.

“I don’t know why the county would want to wade into that issue when the Sanctuary Advisory Council has representatives of all the stakeholder industries, including recreational and commercial fishing and recreational divers,” he said.

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