Local Upper Keys residents Matthew Mitjans, Bryce Wheaton, and AJ Juliano enjoy the sunset after a long day of fishing.

Local Upper Keys residents Matthew Mitjans, Bryce Wheaton, and AJ Juliano enjoy the sunset after a long day of fishing.     

In August of 2019, federal environmental regulators disclosed a controversial proposal to be enacted in the Florida Keys in order to protect corals and marine life. These new proposals entail eight no-fishing zones, a regulation on the boats on which many people reside near shore, along with a restriction on what cruise ships passing through can dump at sea.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its proposals at a meeting in Marathon which was attended by over one hundred people. According to the 581-page report released by the NOAA, “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.”

Key West local Mariel Wiley commented in an interview, “There’s been an outcry against this proposal from Key West locals worried that it will affect the limits of their recreational and economic activities in our waters.

I understand the hesitation to enact change, but I’ve watched the health of our marine ecosystem rapidly deteriorate over my own lifetime and these sanctions are much needed.”

The proposed design involves unveiling an updated “Restoration Blueprint” for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which would add an additional eight preservation areas to the 3,800 square-mile area. The added areas are throughout the Florida Keys include: Delta Shoal off Marathon; Pickles Reef in Key Largo; Western Sambo Reef south of Boca Chica in the Lower Keys; Turtle Rocks and Turtle Shoal of Marathon; Marathon Reef; the Tortugas Corridor in Tortugas National Park, one off Key West and one in Long Key.

According to a local publication, FL Keys News, congress first designated the sanctuary in 1990, and the initial environmental management plan was designed in 1997. The newest pitch from the NOAA will be the first update to the plan since it was created.

Perhaps the biggest cause of controversy which comes from these proposals are the honest ties between the economy and actions relating to the water, such as fishing.

According to the NOAA, about 60 percent of the Florida Keys economy has a direct correlation with water-related activities.

When asked how she felt about the new proposals, Lili Torres, daughter of a local Key Largo fisherman, responded “Because fishing is what my dad does for a living, I can definitely see where the push back is coming from. However, when it comes down to it, the environment is what’s important. Without it, there wouldn’t be any fish to catch in the first place.”

Along with the eight added areas, the NOAA document focuses on combining the Key Largo Dry Rocks and Grecian Rocks preserves into one area, which would make it one of the biggest populations of Endangered Species Act-listed star corals remaining on the outer reef of the Upper Keys.

The proposed additions would cause the Florida Keys National Sanctuary to skyrocket from a 3,800 square-mile area to 4,541 square miles.

Along with this, the NOAA has proposed the prohibition of bait-fishing at four previously existing preservation areas: Conch Reef, Alligator Reef, Sombrero Reef and Sand Key.

The new rules will be enacted after a public comment period which will end in the beginning of 2020. There will likely be changes to the proposals after public input, as well as input from the 20-member Sanctuary Advisory Council, whose members represent the fishing, diving, conservation, and tourism communities.

Local Upper Keys fisherman, Jack Rodberg, said in an interview, “I still need time to really go through the entire document, since it’s over 500 pages. There are some things that I can see right off the bat which would cause concern, but overall, I support it. When it comes down to it, protecting the waters – our main resource – is what is truly vital to the Florida Keys.”

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