Marine protected areas (MPAs) have been a big issue for us at the American Sportfishing Association (ASA), and the recreational fishing community at large, for over a decade. Much like the troll dolls of my youth, the MPA fad swept through the environmental community, which viewed closing areas of the ocean to fishing as the solution to the oceans “crisis.” As a result, all across the country anglers have faced an increasing number of MPA proposals. Of particular concern is a subset of MPAs called marine reserves in which all human activities, including fishing, are banned.
Far too often these proposals are based more on ideology and emotion than science. Anglers are punished for problems that either don’t exist (e.g., the misconception that fisheries are in crisis) or for which they aren’t responsible (e.g., water quality, climate change, etc.).
Earlier this year, ASA updated its position on marine protected areas. The core of our position is reflected in this statement:
“Because they are the most restrictive fisheries management tool, marine reserves should be considered only when recreational fishing poses a clear and demonstrated threat to the sustainability of fisheries resources and only after conventional fisheries management measures have failed.”
This brings me to Biscayne National Park, and the process that has transpired over the last several years to revise the park’s General Management Plan, which will guide overall park operations for the next twenty years or so. Located adjacent to Miami, Fla., Biscayne National Park is the largest marine park in the National Park system and one of the country’s largest urban recreational fishing areas.
In 2011, the National Park Service released a draft General Management Plan, which included a 10,000 acre marine reserve that would cover much of the park’s most popular and productive reef tract. In addition to being concerned over the direct lost of fishing access that would result, ASA was strongly opposed to the terrible precedent that this proposal would set, particularly in the “fishingest” state in the country.
While it is generally recognized that the health of the fisheries resources in Biscayne National Park needs to be improved, this can be accomplished in a reasonable and balanced manner using traditional fisheries management tools. That position is shared by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), which jointly manages the park’s fisheries resources. Nevertheless, the National Park Service attempted to bypass the input and expertise of the FWC and numerous stakeholders by leaping to the most restrictive management approach possible – a marine reserve.
Facing this ominous possibility, ASA and other recreational fishing and boating organizations spearheaded an effort to bring national attention to the Biscayne National Park issue and prompt a reexamination of the marine reserve proposal. Due to our collective efforts, which included numerous meetings with Department of Interior and National Park Service officials, a Congressional oversight hearing, and letter writing campaigns, the National Park Service agreed to take a step back and sit down with the FWC to discuss other ways to move forward.
Biscayne National Park officials were very enamored with the marine reserve concept, and it took over a year of negotiations with the FWC for them to agree to take it off the table.
In place of the marine reserve, the new preferred plan, released in November, instead proposes a 14,585 acre “special recreation zone” in which fishing would be allowed year round under an annual permit system.
There are numerous important details pertaining to the special recreation zone that still must be worked through, including whether the total number of permits to be issued is sufficient to meet demand; whether temporary permits will be allowed; whether the permit system will include a “use it or lose it” requirement; and whether additional mooring buoys will be installed to meet public demand and mitigate user conflicts. However, the fact that the permit system will be operated entirely by the FWC – not the National Park Service – should provide some comfort.
The new management plan is currently in a public comment period during which these and other issues will hopefully be worked through. But it’s important that anglers not lose sight of the big picture. Our community was faced with the very real possibility of losing prime fishing access at Biscayne National Park, likely forever. Instead, we’re now looking at a much more reasonable approach in which public access – albeit limited public access – will continue to be allowed.
I’ve heard from some who are worried about the possible precedent that a limited access permit system in Biscayne National Park might set, with this concept potentially spreading to other areas and limiting access. However, I’d argue that we should be looking at the flipside of that concern over precedent. We now have an example where a no-fishing zone was staring us in the face, but instead managers found a way to move beyond ideology and non-science based reasoning and instead come up with a plan that will continue allowing recreational fishing access to public waters.
If you’re in the South Florida area, three public meetings will be held Dec. 9-11 to allow the public to review and comment on the new management. You can find details on the meetings, as well as more information on the Biscayne National Park issue, at KeepAmericaFishing.org.