A battle for Biscayne Bay

Posted on Written by David Shaw

24_biscayne_1Critics say new government regulations would wall off fishing and hurt the South Florida economy

Guiding anglers to monster game fish is Stan Saffan’s passion. A charter captain from Miami for nearly 50 years, he currently runs two 58-foot sportfishing boats from Haulover Park Marina. But there’s one aspect of Saffan’s job that makes him crazy: regulations and restrictions on recreational fishing that don’t seem to make sense and aren’t sufficiently explained to the public.

“We see laws impacting fishing all the time, and the [regulators] are not generally looking into the tourism part or into charterboats that fish for a living,” Saffan says. “They’re not always considering what’s really going on. Someone at a desk just decides and that’s it.”

Many charter captains would agree with Saffan. The regulatory nut can be a tough one to crack, and when proposed new regulations come along that seem to be more of the same old apparent roundhouse punch to the recreational fishing industry, tempers naturally flare. That’s what’s happening in Saffan’s backyard.

24_biscayne_2As far back as 2009, a proposed marine reserve in Biscayne National Park that would be closed to fishing prompted vehement objections from special interest groups representing recreational anglers.

The heated debate about a marine reserve and four shallow-water zones where the use of combustion engines would be prohibited erupted into a full-out brouhaha in August 2011 when the National Park Service published its draft environmental impact statement for Biscayne National Park’s new general management plan. The plan is a book-size document that will, among other things, dictate operations and resource management in the park for the next 15 or 20 years.

The two restrictive regulations in question were discussed in April at the American Boating Congress in Washington, D.C., and concerns about these regulations were presented that same month in a joint letter from Florida U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio to Kenneth Salazar, secretary of the Department of the Interior, which oversees the National Park Service. Fishing organizations such as the American Sportfishing Association say both regulations are too restrictive, would impede access to the park and would adversely affect local and state economies.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission also contends that overly restrictive park policies, such as establishing a no-fishing marine reserve, are not in the spirit of a memorandum of understanding that the FWC and the National Park Service signed in 2007. The document highlights ground rules for a working relationship and, at its core, is an agreement that the park and FWC would pursue the “least restrictive management actions necessary to fully achieve mutual management goals for the fishery resources of the park and adjoining areas.”

Closing off part of the park, even if it amounts to only 7 percent of its 270 square miles, flies in the face of the agreement, says Mike Leonard, director of ocean resource policy for the American Sportfishing Association in Alexandria, Va. “We’re seeing this more and more, the going with the idea of closing off a part of the ocean, the locking it up and keeping your fingers crossed that all of your resource challenges will go away,” Leonard says.

24_biscayne_3Leonard says traditional fishery management tools such as bag limits, size limits and fishing seasons have been successful in many places, and there’s no reason they can’t be used to address the decline of some fish species in Biscayne Bay. “There’s plenty of evidence that stocks will rebound with proper regulations. You can accomplish the preservation of the resource without closing off an area entirely,” he says.

Mark Lewis, superintendent of Biscayne National Park, says the memorandum of understanding includes language from the FWC that says marine reserves should be the last tool in the toolbox to manage fisheries throughout the park. The agreement also says the FWC understands that the park will consider marine reserves in the general management plan, Lewis says.

“It’s all spelled out, and that’s why it’s in the agreement in the first place,” he says. “We know [the FWC] didn’t like the idea of establishing a marine reserve as a fisheries management tool, but we’re [chiefly] looking at a marine reserve as a tool to provide visitors with the possibility of experiencing a natural reef.”

In other words, the National Park Service says its main goal for the proposed reserve is to set aside space that will eventually revert to a completely natural state with no evidence of human impact.

The reserve would total 10,522 acres and would cover the waters between Hawk Channel and the park’s eastern boundary to Pacific Reef north to Long Reef. “You can’t go and see what a natural reef looks like when all of the big fish have been yanked out of there and when you don’t have a natural ecosystem,” Lewis says. “One of the other key points is that we have a responsibility in the Park Service to provide for a wide range of visitor experiences, including opportunities for those who just want to look at fish and who want to have a real reef experience with a full range of sizes and species of fish.”

The general management plan’s shallow-water exclusion zones for combustion engines include the entire mainland shoreline. Electric trolling motors could be used within the zones, and combustion engines would still be allowed in all channels and canals leading into the park. Lewis says the intent is to protect grass beds and seafloor organisms that make up the basis of the food chain.

24_biscayne_4The American Sportfishing Association and other organizations object to the idea of establishing no-combustion-engine zones, calling it restrictive and a “de facto closure” of the impacted waters. “A lot of fishing takes place in the shallow-water areas,” Leonard says. “We noticed some of the zones are a mile wide in some places. A mile is a long way to go without using a motor to get across. We looked at [the idea] and didn’t think it was an appropriate tool to use in that it will tend to discourage people from going into those areas. We’re working closely with the National Park Service and with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission on reducing and modifying the location and size of the zones so that reasonable access to these areas can still be achieved.”

Just south of Miami, the current Biscayne National Park was established in 1980, the result of two expansions in acreage dating from 1968, when a smaller area of the current park was designated as the Biscayne National Monument. The marine park is the largest in the United States and 95 percent of its acreage is submerged. Bonefish, permit, tarpon, mangrove snapper, shark, barracuda and many other species thrive in park waters, supporting as many as 10 million angling trips a year and providing a substantial contribution to local and state economies. Annual fishing-related retail sales amount to about $3 billion in Florida, according to FWC data.

The concern among some stakeholders is that the proposed marine reserve and no-combustion-engine zones will discourage fishing throughout Biscayne National Park, which in turn will harm fishing tackle sales, charter operations and even boat sales. Although no one has a crystal ball to predict what the impact of the proposed regulations will be, there is evidence that indicates establishing marine reserves elsewhere has led to adverse economic consequences for tackle retailers and other fishing-related businesses.

Leonard cites California’s statewide initiative involving the establishment of hundreds of marine protection areas as an example. “In the first region they placed marine protected areas, fishing tackle retailers saw a 20 percent drop in sales,” he says. “Now, could we expect that same 20 percent drop in Biscayne National Park? We don’t know. We do know that the Park Service says the impact is going to be minimal, but we don’t think that accurately portrays what the impact will be.”

No final decisions have been made concerning the general management plan, Lewis says. The initial goal was to publish the final copy by the end of this year, but now that’s up in the air. “It’s too soon to tell when it will be published, due to the ongoing review of the draft and our continuing engagement and communication with other agencies,” he says.

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.

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