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Feds to unveil rules to protect fish and coral reefs in Florida Keys. Anglers watching.

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The federal agency that oversees much of the marine environment in the Florida Keys is expected to release a widely anticipated report next week containing new proposed rules to protect fish, the coral reef and sea grass, recommendations that are likely to establish more no-fishing zones.

The federal government designated the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in 1990. It encompasses all surrounding waters of the island chain.

Rules for the 3,800-square-mile zone aim to balance protecting the diverse Keys marine life, including North America’s only coral barrier reef, while allowing activity like fishing, diving and boating — essential drivers of Monroe County’s economy.

Next Tuesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent agency of the sanctuary, is expected to unveil a set of proposed changes to its rules at a meeting in the Middle Keys city of Marathon.

“Proposed changes are based on three decades of science, technical expertise and local community involvement, and are designed to better address degraded habitats and increasing threats,” said Gena Parsons, communications and outreach manager for the sanctuary.

The meeting is expected to be the beginning of an extended public comment period on the proposals, officials say.

Various stakeholders, from chambers of commerce to the commercial fishing industry, which employs thousands of people living in the archipelago, are anticipating the release of the document, which NOAA is calling the “Restoration Blueprint.” They’re waiting to see if it calls for placing more areas off-limits to human activity, including fishing.

Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association, says his group isn’t necessarily opposed to creating new protected areas or extending the boundaries of the sanctuary, noting his association pushed for the approval of 60 coral protection zones in 2012.

“We have no problem with that as long as there are reasonable boundaries,” he said.

But, he hopes the proposals also take into account the changing economics of the Keys, which has gone from a series of small fishing communities when the sanctuary was created to a major tourist destination. Tourism, he said, poses more of a threat to the Keys environment than commercial angling.

“We need to protect and preserve the character of our communities and our marine environment,” Kelly said. “Commercial fishing is done sustainably here in the Keys, is the second-largest economic engine in Monroe County and a major employer with 4,500 strictly boat-related jobs.”

NOAA and sanctuary officials have released few details of the proposed changes, but Parsons said options include maintaining the status quo and three NOAA options: “NOAA’s preferred alternative, a less conservative alternative and a more conservative alternative.”

Sarah Fangman, sanctuary superintendent, called NOAA’s preferred alternative “right in the middle” of the less and more conservative options.

“There are a lot of changes proposed,” Fangman said, adding, “The key word is proposed.”

There are 18 “Sanctuary Preservation Areas” within the sanctuary, covering just about five miles where harvesting fish and anchoring are prohibited. The zones are marked off by buoys. Boating, diving and snorkeling are allowed. Those diving and snorkeling must not anchor their vessels, but rather connect them to one of several mooring balls located in the area.

The Aug. 20 meeting, which is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. at the Isla Bella Beach Resort, at mile marker 47, is expected to be the first of several seeking public comment of the proposals. The federal government will take public comments online on the Federal Register until Jan. 31, 2020.

“I expect to hear people say that we’re doing too little, and those who say that we’re not doing enough,” Fangman said.

If you go

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Committee meeting is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 20, at the Isla Bella Beach Resort, 1 Knights Key Boulevard in Marathon.

The meeting will also be streamed live on the Sanctuary Advisory Council’s YouTube channel.

David Goodhue covers the Florida Keys and South Florida for FLKeysNews.com and the Miami Herald. Before joining the Herald, he covered Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.
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