Congressional bills aim to kill Biscayne National Park's protected no-fishing zone

Biscayne National Park lies just to the north of Key Largo.
Biscayne National Park lies just to the north of Key Largo.

A planned no-fishing zone in Biscayne National Park could be undone by Congress.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) this week filed a Senate bill called the Preserving Public Access to Public Waters Act that puts the 16-square-mile Biscayne marine reserve in its crosshairs.

The Senate bill largely tracks the U.S. House of Representatives' "Sportsmen's Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act" that passed a full House vote Feb. 26.

The House bill, whose sponsors include South Florida Republican U.S. Reps. Carlos Curbelo (who represents the Keys) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, includes a provision that state fish and wildlife regulators can block a federal fishing closure lying within state waters.

"This legislation will ensure that the state's authority to manage state fishery resources is maintained and will provide a backstop against poorly developed fishing closures that would only serve to deter fishing participation," Patrick Murray, president of the Coastal Conservation Association, said in a statement.

The National Park Service in late 2015 approved a new management plan for Biscayne National Park, which lies a few miles north of North Key Largo.

The plan includes the 16-square-mile reserve in the country's largest marine national park as a key measure to protect the coral growth and fish populations.

The reserve was applauded by the National Parks Conservation Association and numerous other environment groups as "one of the most effective and scientifically sound ways to protect the incredible living coral reef ecosystem that has degraded over the past two decades," said Caroline McLaughlin, NPCA's Biscayne program manager.

Sport and commercial fishing organizations, including the CCA and the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association, protested the reserve as excessive and endorsed the congressional bills intended to remove it.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission objected to closing a reef-fishing area accessible to the large South Florida boating community.

The FWC board "has been continually frustrated with the National Park Service for its unwillingness to explore alternatives to a no-fishing marine reserve zone," FWC Director of Marine Fisheries Jessica McCawley told congressmen in 2015.

The National Parks Conservation Association "strongly opposes these bills as overreaching legislation," McLaughlin said. "If passed, it could severely undermine the authority of the National Parks in 88 coastal parks across the country."

The Biscayne reserve has been adopted in the park's management plan but has not been put into effect pending additional federal regulatory steps. The zone covers about 6 percent of Biscayne National Park waters but anglers contend it comprises about 40 percent of the prime reef-fishing areas.

The House bill, HR-2406, passed on a 242-161 vote. Republicans overwhelmingly supported it; Democrats cast 157 of the no votes.

Everglades National Park's updated management plan does not appear to be affected by the congressional bills.