Proposal to Create No-Fishing Reserve at Biscayne National Park Opposed by Some

On October 18, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a bill creating Biscayne National Monument in Florida to protect “a rare combination of terrestrial, marine and amphibious life in a tropical setting of great natural beauty.” Since then, the park has undergone several enlargements and a name change. It is now Biscayne National Park and encompasses 173,000 acres of beautiful waters, emerald islands and coral reefs just south of Miami.

Fishing has always been considered a legitimate recreational activity within the waters that comprise 95 percent of the park. In June of this year, however, park officials released a management plan they say is designed to improve visitor experiences and restore the park’s coral reef ecosystem, only six percent of which remains. Part of that plan calls for creating a 10,500-acre no-fishing marine reserve zone.

“A marine reserve is one of the most effective ways for the park to encourage restoration of the coral reef ecosystem,” the park says on its website. “In addition to producing larger fish and more fish for snorkelers and divers to enjoy, the marine reserve also is expected to have a spillover effect, improving the fishing experience outside the zone. The marine reserve concept received strong support from the public during development of the plan.”

If everything goes as planned by park officials, implementation of the marine reserve zone will occur after a special park regulation defining visitor access requirements is issued. But everything may not go as planned due to opposition from several groups, including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FFWCC).

Like all national parks, Biscayne is managed by the National Park Service, a branch of the federal Department of the Interior. But due to wording written into legislation that created the park, fishing in Biscayne is largely governed by state law. The park staff works with Florida fisheries biologists, enforcement officers and others to promote regulations that ensure the long-term sustainability of fisheries resources there. But the FFWCC sees the no-fishing reserve as “a management measure of last resort” and wants the park service to more thoroughly explore other options before closing more than 10,000 acres to recreational and commercial fishermen. FFWCC officials have continually expressed their position that the proposed marine reserve is overly restrictive to the public, will not be biologically effective and that less restrictive management tools can rebuild the park’s fisheries resources and conserve habitat.

The recreational fishing and boating community has echoed these concerns, with many charter fishing captains saying laws already in place aren’t being enforced, and stepping up enforcement efforts would be a better alternative to closing the fishery.

To shine more light on these important issues, the House Committee on Natural Resources and the House Committee on Small Business recently held a joint oversight hearing titled “Restricted Access at Biscayne National Park and Implications for Fishermen, Small Businesses, the Local Economy and Environment.” The hearing took place August 3 in Homestead, Florida.

Among those testifying were two industry members of the American Sportfishing Association (ASA): Carl Liederman, owner of Capt. Harry’s Fishing Supply, and Scott Salyers, Fishing Group publisher for Bonnier Corporation. More than 100 members of the public attended, including many recreational and commercial fishermen opposed to the marine reserve proposal.

“While significant in terms of lost public access, closing this area will do nothing biologically to improve the overall fisheries conditions in the park,” said Liederman. “There is simply no good science to support it, as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission can attest here today. And that, coupled with the adverse economic impact this closure will bring to many of the marine-related small businesses in south Florida, makes this closure a very bad idea.”

Salyers said he believes that “better educating users, combined with responsible management actions that allow for continued access, can be effective in restoring the parks fisheries and habitat if given the chance. We fishermen want sustainable fisheries for years to come. We want our children and their children to enjoy the same fishing experiences that we have.”

Other action has been taken which could stop the marine reserve proposal as well. On July 28, Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) and 28 other original sponsors introduced H.R. 3310, the “Preserving Public Access to Public Waters Act,” which aims “to preserve access to public waters and maintain the vital role of States in fisheries management decisions.” If passed, it would require the National Park Service and Office of National Marine Sanctuaries to have approval from state fish and wildlife agencies before closing state waters to recreational or commercial fishing. The bill was assigned to a congressional committee, which will consider it before possibly sending it on to the House or Senate as a whole.

“The Congressional leaders who are sponsoring this bill are to be commended for this common sense approach to protect saltwater anglers from unwarranted access restrictions,” said Chris Horton, Fisheries Program director for the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. “The Biscayne National Park marine reserve is part of a concerning trend of closing marine areas without scientific basis or an understanding of the critical role anglers play in the economy and in funding conservation.”

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