As this is being written, the fishing public is about to lose access to some of South Florida’s key fishing territory. It just happens to be part of the Keys. This is a substantial step backward in the ongoing effort to give recreational users access to important fishing grounds.
I wrote about this developing issue almost three years ago. At that time, Biscayne Bay National Park (BISC) was in the final stages of updating its general management plan (GMP). Most readers will recognize Biscayne Bay as an important destination for those interested in shallow-water and reef game-fishing.
National parks periodically update their GMP, which essentially lays out how the park will operate and what its goals are for the public resources that the park manages. BISC went through just such a process to revise its GMP a number of years ago. The prior update was in 1983, so no one argued that management did not need to look at all the changes in usage that have taken place since then, and the changes that normally occur with natural resources. So far we are all singing from the same hymnbook.
When it comes to managing fish resources in BISC, the regulations, which have been based on common sense, said that the fishing laws of the State of Florida shall prevail in order for there to be uniform laws inside and outside the park. In 2002, this working arrangement was codified with a Memorandum of Understanding to “facilitate management, protection and scientific study of fish and aquatic resources within the national park.” It further stated that “the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) believes that marine reserves are overly restrictive and that less restrictive fishery management tools should be implemented to achieve fishery management goals, and marine reserves would be used as a fishery management tool only when absolutely necessary.” So, earlier this summer BISC announced its selection of essentially the most restrictive alternative that would place 10,500 acres of prime fishing habitat into a marine reserve and out of reach for the angling public. This was after its own working group had suggested other restrictions and public input had supported most of those suggested alternatives. It would appear that BISC just went through the motions to make it look like it was listening to the public when, in fact, it had already made up its mind.
It should also be pointed out that while the FWC recognizes marine reserves as one of the tools that managers need to have in their toolbox to properly manage marine resources, the FWC felt that in this case there were other management tools that could be used to produce the desired results without a complete shutdown of such an extensive area. The folks at BISC, however, simply pointed out that they are only restricting about 6 percent of the total park area. OK, but a great deal of that 6 percent is a very productive fishing area and extremely important to the recreational user. Also, we have not seen any comparative analysis of how less-restrictive measures might perform in comparison to this restrictive alternative.
It would seem that BISC took the easiest way out by selecting the most restrictive alternative. This is reminiscent of the struggle that went on for years with the Cape Hatteras National Seashore where the Seashore administration wanted protection of birds over all else. The fishing public wanted reasonable access while understanding the need for avian protection. The off-road vehicle users wanted no restrictions. The issue became so contentious that common sense was sacrificed. The BISC situation is fast approaching that level of acrimony.
Congressional legislation to deal with this issue has been filed by Reps. Curbelo, Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart to insert another level of input. It simply reads: “The Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Commerce shall not restrict recreational or commercial fishing access to any State or territorial marine waters or Great Lakes waters within the jurisdiction of the National Park Service or the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, respectively, unless those restrictions are developed in coordination with, and approved by, the fish and wildlife management agency of the State or territory that has fisheries management authority over those waters.”
This may be very appropriate for the BISC issue because the Park Service did sign a Memorandum of Understanding that essentially said the same thing. However, it could be problematic in other situations. Perhaps BISC should take a close look at how Everglades National Park officials worked with the recreational fishing and boating users during its GMP development process. That responsiveness to public input is how good public policy should be crafted.
I do know that when the very user group that highly values a resource is being completely restricted from accessing or using that resource, managers have lost a valuable ally and staunch supporter of sensible and sustainable management. That is poor public policy.