Larger fishing zone floated for Biscayne National Park

State fishery managers offered support for conservation goals in Biscayne National Park waters north of Key Largo — but intend to keep their voice heard on any fishing rule changes.

A move away from an initial proposal for a no-fishing area covering 16 square miles pleased board members of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission when they met Thursday in Weston in Broward County.

Instead, the National Park Service and FWC staff are working on a new and larger Special Recreation Zone where a limited number of recreational anglers would be allowed under a system similar to quota-hunt permits.

“Some folks think this is too loose, some think it’s overly restrictive,” said FWC Vice Chairman Brian Yablonski. “We’re trying to hit the sweet spot with our stakeholders.”

“The whole key here is preservation of the resource while making sure there is sustainable access for the enjoyment of the people of Florida,” Commissioner Ron Bergeron said.

Commissioners made no public mention Thursday of allowing continued commercial fishing in Biscayne National Park’s newly proposed 23-square-mile recreational zone — except for surface net fishing for ballyhoo.

More restrictive rules create “noose tightening around commercial fishing,” Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association Executive Director Bill Kelly told the board in public comment. “This closure mentality has got to stop.”

Kelly said steps to prevent water pollution from Miami-Dade County would do far more to promote increased fish stocks than limiting commercial fishing.

An estimated 77 to 95 commercial fishermen use park waters annually for catches ranging from bait to food shrimp and lobster, FWC Marine Fisheries Director Jessica McCawley told the board.

Sportfishing groups including the Coastal Conservation Association of Florida, the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust and the American Sportfishing Association trade group said the organizations remain open to discussion on the proposed 500 recreational permits for the zone, but want to “iron out” specifics.

Those include the number of mooring buoys available inside the no-anchoring zone, the possibility of short-term permits for out-of-state visitors, and assurance that permits would not be wasted on people who do not use them.

The National Parks Conservation Association said rules allowing fishing in the zone were “inadequate to protect the coral-reef ecosystem of the park.”

McCawley assured commissioners that any specific rules affecting fishermen would return to the FWC for a vote. “We not giving anything up” in terms of jurisdiction, she said.

“It has not been easy to get here,” Yablonski said of the Special Recreation Zone. “We were fighting a big battle on the marine reserve, and now the Park Service is doing something it has never done before.”

The FWC would manage the lottery and issuance of the zone permits.

Biscayne National Park managers come to Key Largo for a Dec. 11 comment session on new management plans for the area. Public comment is open until Feb. 20.

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