Florida Fishing Access in the Crosshairs

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By Bill Horn, USSA Director of Federal Affairs

Hunters have been fighting hunting bans, closures, and access restrictions for years.  Anglers are now facing the same threats from federal agencies, green activists and other anti-interests.   The latest battleground is south Florida specifically the fish-rich Florida Keys and Biscayne Bay adjacent to Miami.  The National Park Service (NPS) and the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary (FKMS), administered by the federal Department of Commerce, are considering far reaching plans to close vast marine areas to motorboat access and impose no fishing zones. Fishermen are reacting angrily wanting to know why especially since public use and enjoyment is a purpose of the affected Park and Marine Sanctuary areas.

NPS fired the first salvos in this battle.  Six years ago the agency created a 46 square mile “ecological preserve” in the Dry Tortugas islands west of Key West.  No fishing of any kind is allowed and boats are not allowed to anchor within the area.  Because the area is remote, criticism was muted but many warned the action was merely the “nose under the tent” for more fishing restrictions – and they were right.

Everglades National Park includes much of Florida Bay – a highly productive estuary wedged between the Keys to the south and the Everglades to the north.  The Bay teems with fish providing world class angling for tarpon, redfish, snook, seatrout and a myriad of other species.  When the Dry Tortugas preserve was set up, NPS issued a proposed General Management Plan (GMP) for Everglades Park and the Bay.  Recently, the GMP was modified to bar motorboat access to about one-third of the Bay in the name of ecosystem protection. And the usual activist, animal rights suspects are pressing hard for these closures while threatening litigation if NPS does not adopt their agenda.  If adopted, anglers will be unable to reach – and fish – vast areas –  areas prized for their high quality sportfishing opportunities.  Bitter criticism has been directed at the pending GMP and the prospective loss of fishing access in the Bay.

Up the road in Miami, Biscayne Bay within Biscayne National Park Bay offers superb opportunities for bonefish, seatrout, tarpon, snook, and snappers.  And being on Miami’s doorstep, it is a popular destination for locals as well as visitors and has been for years.   NPS ignited a firestorm when it proposed in 2011to close 10,000 acres of the Bay, over 15 square miles, to fishing. Fortunately a fierce reaction by the sporting community prompted the agency to back down this spring and shelve this misconceived closure plan.

The victory celebration was short lived as FKMS unveiled new proposed fishing restrictions for broad areas adjacent to the Florida Keys.  The Keys offers the finest mix of saltwater fishing opportunities in the U.S. Inshore shallow flats are famous for bonefish, permit and tarpon.   The coral reefs adjacent to the island chain are loaded with snappers and groupers and the reef edges are patrolled by sailfish, king mackerel, and other pelagic species in season.  At least a dozen preservation or sanctuary areas appeared on maps this spring with each area reaching from the shoreline out to sea more than three miles to the reef.  Each of these zones would be a mile or more wide and at a minimum, each zone would be a “no take” area where no fish could be caught and kept.  It is unclear what other kinds of restrictions may be imposed but closures to boat access and fishing are part of other existing smaller FKMS zones.  The new sanctuary plan also includes doubling the existing Dry Tortugas ecological preserve/no fishing zone to the consternation of those who were assured that the 2007 closure would be sufficient.

Anglers are deeply concerned because the agency explains the restrictions are to allow “areas of high ecological importance to evolve with minimal human influence” and   “protect large, continuous, diverse and interconnected habitats, populations and ecological processes.”  It doesn’t look like there’s any room for traditional fishing.

By now the pattern is clear: federal agencies in south Florida are marching toward more and more fishing closures.  Strong reaction from fishermen, boaters, local communities, and the State seems only to delay rather than prevent adverse federal action.  With the new Everglades and FKMS proposals,   even if anglers prevail in part, the odds are strong that big chunks of Florida Bay will be put off limits and new ecological preserves will appear throughout the Keys.

So what if south Florida suffers broad fishing closures?   Florida is ranked the #1 fishing state with the most anglers and a sportfishing industry worth approximately $2 billion each year.  If an angling community with this kind of horsepower can’t stop closures, how will anglers elsewhere fare where they have less clout?  We have already seen the fishing closure cancer get established in California where there are dozens of marine protected areas covering thousands of square miles where all fishing is banned.  The spread of closures to another large, populated state like Florida will embolden anti-fishing activists who are already searching for their next target.

Years ago hunters closed ranks and learned  to fight back. USSA has been on that front line for over 35 years.  It’s time for the fishing community to appreciate the threat to their heritage and start fighting back too.  We’re here to help.

Bill Horn is USSA’s longtime Director of Federal Affairs.  Formerly Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish, Wildlife and Parks under President Reagan, Chairman of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, and member of the National Academy of Sciences Environmental Board, he has long experience in fishery issues.  He is also a keen angler with decades of experience in the Florida Keys and recently authored Seasons on the Flats: An Angler’s Year in the Florida Keys published by Stackpole Books.