Recreational fishing stakeholders support the latest proposed changes to Biscayne National Park’s fisheries management plan that aims to increase legal size and bag limits on certain species of fish but would not place parts of the park off limits to fishing.
The commercial industry and environmental groups have objections, albeit for competing reasons.
“We need to very carefully evaluate what Biscayne National Park is putting on the table,” said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association.
About 6 percent of the 173,900-acre marine park was dedicated as a no-fishing zone in 2015, but the policy was never implemented due to pressure from fishing interests, both Florida senators and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Anglers contend that while the no-fishing zone comprises only a small percentage of the park (about 16 miles), it includes about 40 percent of its prime fishing areas.
“Overall, we are very supportive of the this plan, and we are happy to see the Parks Service and FWC work together on increasing aggregate bag and size limits and still allowing boaters and anglers access to the park,” said Kellie Ralston, Florida species policy director for the American Sportfishing Association.
The National Service and FWC held a series of meetings this week to gauge public opinion on the proposed changes. There is a meeting Thursday in Key Largo at the Murray Nelson Government and Cultural Center at mile marker 102 Thursday at 6 p.m.
While the latest proposals don’t include marine preserves, the one written into the 2015 plan still stands and could one day be implemented, Ralston said. The FWC creates most of the fisheries rules in the park, but the Park Service can dictate regulations in certain areas.
Significant pressure to do so remains from environmental groups like the National Parks Conservation Association.
The organization wrote a letter in July to FWC Commissioner Robert Spottswood urging the agency and Park Service to adopt stronger regulations, including marine preserves, in its latest plan. The group contends the proposed changes are insufficient to make up for decades of overfishing, and warns some species living within the park are on the verge of collapse.
“While the initial proposals made by FWC staff to increase size limits for certain species are a good first step, on their own these proposed regulations will not achieve sustainability for nearly all the species under consideration,” the letter states. “Thus, we urge you to consider not only changes to size limits and habitat protections, but also decreasing intensive fishing pressure by implementing spacial closures (i.e. no-take marine reserves) that are based on sound science.”
Biscayne National Park is located in Miami-Dade County, just north of North Key Largo in the southern end to just south of Key Biscayne on the northern end. Hundreds of thousands of people, from recreational boaters, divers and snorkelers to commercial fishermen, use the park every year, according to the National Park Service.
It contains some of the Florida Keys coral reef tract that extends all the way up to Martin County, and was established in the late 1960s to protect prized South Florida fish species including mutton, gray and yellowtail snapper, hogfish and Florida spiny lobster and stone crabs.
The goal of the latest changes to the fisheries management plan is to increase the abundance and average size of target species by 20 percent.
Among the proposed changes would be to increase the legal size of a yellowtail snapper from 12 inches to 14 inches. The legal size for gray and schoolmaster snapper would increase from 10 inches to 12.
Since the size limit on hogfish, a wrasse that is a popular food fish in South Florida, was already recently raised from 12 to 16 inches, the FWC isn’t recommending a new increase.
Species like blue striped and white grunts, which don’t have a size limit, would need to be 10 and eight inches respectively to keep, according to a presentation released by FWC in July.
FWC and the Park Service are also proposing cutting in half the allowable harvest of stone crab claws from the current half gallon per person to one gallon per vessel, excluding the park from the popular two-day annual lobster “miniseason” in July and banning spearfishing in the park using spearguns that have triggers.
Kelly is wary of the science behind the government’s determination that the fishery needs to increase by 20 percent, but he’s also concerned by potential unintended consequences that could arise if the rules are adopted.
For example, the Keys already sees as many as 40,000 visitors coming to the archipelago during lobster miniseason. If Biscayne park is off limits during the annual bug hunt, thousands more people from the mainland could flood the Keys for their fill of spiny lobsters.
“We’ll put these islands at a standstill,” Kelly said.