Eight no-fishing zones proposed in the Keys to protect threatened corals and marine life

Recognizing that the Florida Keys are increasingly at risk due to climate change and the volume of people going there, federal environmental regulators Tuesday unveiled major new proposals to protect marine life and corals that would limit fishing, restrict what cruise ships can dump at sea and regulate the boats on which many people live near shore.

“The existing regulations, marine zones and management plan activities designed and implemented in the mid-1990s are no longer sufficient to ensure long-term resource protection and ecosystem function into the future,” says the 581-page report issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

And in a move that will likely cause controversy in the fishing industry, NOAA, the federal agency that oversees the waters surrounding the island chain, called for adding eight more zones in Keys waters where both commercial and recreational angling would be prohibited.

About 60 percent of the Keys economy is tied directly to water-related activities, according to NOAA, which released its proposals Tuesday at a meeting in Marathon attended by more than 100 people.

Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association, said he was concerned about the size of some of the new proposed no-fishing zones and about proposed prohibitions at some of the existing zones.

One of the proposed zones, known as Special Preservation Areas, starts at the shoreline of Long Key in the Upper Keys and extends about three and a half miles offshore.

“At first glance, that would be a concern to us,” said Kelly, who attended the meeting.

The “Restoration Blueprint” for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, a 3,800-square-mile area which covers all the waters surrounding the archipelago, also includes proposals to expand the protected area to include more of the Dry Tortugas west of Key West, which would make the sanctuary 4,541 square miles.

Congress designated the sanctuary in 1990, and the original environmental management plan was created in 1997. The proposed new rules will be the first update to that plan.

NOAA said the original management plan is outdated due to “invasive species, climate change, and increasing coastal and visitor populations and recreational use of the sanctuary.”

The rules will be implemented following a public comment period that ends in the beginning of 2020.

According to NOAA officials, for no-fishing zones to be effective in helping fish populations rebound, they need to cover from 20 to 30 percent of an area. The 19 existing “Special Preservation Areas” cover about five miles of the sanctuary.

The “Blueprint” calls for an additional eight preservation areas: Turtle Rocks and Turtle Shoal of Marathon; Western Sambo Reef south of Boca Chica in the Lower Keys; the Tortugas Corridor in Tortugas National Park; Pickles Reef in Key Largo; Marathon Reef; Delta Shoal off Marathon, one off Key West and one in Long Key.

Also, the existing Key Largo Dry Rocks and Grecian Rocks preserves would be combined to include an area that is one of the largest remaining healthy populations of Endangered Species Act-listed star corals on the outer reef of the Upper Keys, according to the document.

Another controversial NOAA proposal is prohibiting the catching of bait fish at four existing preservation areas — Conch Reef, Alligator Reef, Sombrero Reef and Sand Key.

“They might get some pushback on that from the recreational sector,” Kelly said.

While NOAA has recommended the proposals, there will likely be significant compromise after public input and input from the 20-member Sanctuary Advisory Council, whose members represent the fishing, diving, conservation and tourism communities.

“It’s obviously very complicated, and there is still a lot of vetting to go on,” said Andy Newman, media relations manager with the Monroe County Tourist Development Council and an advisory council member.

Newman added that some of the other Keys stakeholders would likely support the additional proposed no-fishing zones since the preservation of the environment is key to the economic survival of the archipelago.

“Whatever we can do to help protect the reef while promoting reasonable usage is a good thing for the Florida Keys,” he said.

Charter fishing captain and advisory council member Steve Leopold agreed, saying while he still has not yet digested the entire document and he has some “thoughts and concerns,” he’s supportive of the process.

“Overall and initially, I think the changes on the table are reasonable,” he said, adding, “Bottom line is, we have to protect our resource.”

NOAA’s proposals on derelict vessels would likely force many in the Keyswide live-aboard community to look elsewhere because their boats would no longer be acceptable to moor in the Keys.

Beth Dieveney, policy adviser for the sanctuary, said the proposed rules would “prohibit anchoring, mooring, or occupying a vessel at risk of becoming derelict or deserting a vessel aground, at anchor or adrift in the sanctuary.”

Many boats in Keys mooring fields are in dilapidated condition.

NOAA’s proposed rules for cruise ships would prevent ships from sailing in the sanctuary from dumping two substances: graywater (leftover liquid from showers, dishwashers and sinks) and discharge from scrubber machines that filter sulfur out of heavy fuel exhaust. The rule would apply to all ships carrying more than 250 passengers.

“The application of the proposed regulation prohibiting certain discharges from cruise ships would benefit habitats and wildlife in the vicinity of cruise ship transit lanes within the sanctuary by preventing contact with pollutants,” the draft proposal said.

The sanctuary’s boundary stretches to around 8.5 miles off Florida’s shore, a NOAA spokesperson said. NOAA is also proposing expanding the sanctuary’s reach to 11.5 miles off shore, further limiting where cruise ships can dump waste.

The Port of Key West welcomes as many as three cruise ships a day, many from Miami cruise lines: Carnival Corp., Royal Caribbean International and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd.

Roger Frizzell, a spokesperson for Carnival Corp., the largest cruise company in the world, said he doesn’t expect the new rules will affect operations because the company’s policy doesn’t allow ships to dump these substances close to shore.

“While we have not yet been in discussions on this particular proposal, it does not appear to require any changes — or have any impact at all — on our cruise lines based on our company’s existing policies that we already follow in the region,” he said. Carnival Corp. paid a $20 million fine earlier this year for criminal probation violations, including dumping food waste mixed with plastic into Bahamian waters.

Similarly, Janet Diaz, a spokesperson for Royal Caribbean, said company policy doesn’t allow for graywater and scrubber discharge dumping within three miles of shore or within marine sanctuaries. Norwegian Cruise Line did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the new limit.