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Debate continues over Biscayne National Park restrictions

For 15 years, officials, environmentalists, anglers and boaters have struggled over how to protect Biscayne National Park, an underwater jewel in South Florida.

The park houses part of the largest coral reef in the United States, now deteriorating and with a fish population that is dangerously depleted, according to a New York Times report.

“The dispute, on one level, seems simple: Should federal officials ban fishing in 10,522 acres, or 6 percent, of Biscayne National Park, to help replenish the snapper and grouper?” wrote Lisette Alvarez of the Times.

“Or should they do as the state and the powerful marine industry want and try incremental fixes first, toughening existing rules?” she asks in a story appearing Dec. 21. “Saltwater recreational fishing pumps $7.6 billion a year into Florida’s economy, the largest total in the country.”

Bubbling over the disagreement, however, is a larger question of fairness and consistency in park policies, federal park officials said. Strict rules designed to protect resources and ecosystems in the most cherished national parks — no hunting in Yosemite, for example — seem to get short shrift when applied to the fish and coral reefs here in the country’s largest marine park, they said.

“Biscayne is a national park,” said Brian Carlstrom, the park’s new superintendent. “If this were national park land, there would be no question of what resources can be extracted from here.”

Carlstrom said the habitat across the 173,000 acres of the park, just off the shore of metropolitan Miami, has visibly deteriorated in the past 15 years, which is why officials have been developing a new general management plan.

“If you go out there right now, you won’t see the large predatory fish because they are not out there,” he said. “Once they reach the legal size limit, they get caught and harvested at that point in time.”

The fish have come under pressure not only from South Florida’s booming population, but also because fast boats, GPS devices and other high-powered gear make finding and catching fish much easier than it was a couple of decades ago. Increasingly, though, anglers return with nothing but grunts, which were once considered to be “reject” fish, park officials said.

Closing the 10,522 acres to fishing — a section of the park that the federal government controls alone — is one of several options on the table, Carlstrom said.

State officials bristle at the idea of a no-take reserve. They said the proposed section is one of the park’s most popular areas and covers about 30 percent of the reef tract. Shutting down fishing should always be a last resort, and in this case it is not, they argued.

“There are lots of other fishery management tools out there that need to be tried first,” said Jessica McCawley, director of the marine fisheries management division for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “Once you have to close down an area, it’s almost like fisheries management has failed.”

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