Government’s proposed changes to fishing rules anger Key West fishermen

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary held a public comment meeting in Key West on Monday, Sept. 23. During the presentation on proposals to change fishing and boating zones, many in the crowd heckled and booed sanctuary officials.

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary held a public comment meeting in Key West on Monday, Sept. 23. During the presentation on proposals to change fishing and boating zones, many in the crowd heckled and booed sanctuary officials.

Adam Disson, a boat captain in Key West, couldn’t hold his tongue — or keep his temper in check — during Monday night’s meeting over proposed changes to fishing rules in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary that could limit fishing in the Florida Keys.

“That’s based on flawed science!” Disson said, rising from his seat inside Key West High School’s auditorium, where a couple hundred people turned out for a meeting that included a chance to question the plans.

The topics at hand: a proposal to provide additional protection for “deep reef habitat,” including Western Sambo, a reef in the Lower Keys, and a proposal to test limited access zones at Sand Key, limiting commercial operators to “Blue Star operators” — those who qualify for the sanctuary’s environmental protection program.

Disson responded to a proposal to limit entry in the Marquesas and create a new zone — the Dry Tortugas corridor.

“It’ll be called catching, not fishing,” Disson said. “There’s no such thing as a corridor.”

“You’re telling people that the scientists say this should be closed because the fish swim in that alley?” Disson asked. “Come on! You’re taking people’s livelihoods. What happens to us?”

“What you’re doing is not right! This is flawed science! Prove it! You can’t.” he shouted, drawing cheers from the crowd.

Disson was joined by others in a chorus of opposition.

“You’re not here to help us!” shouted one man. Heckling and groans were heard throughout the latter part of the meeting.

Little kids held handmade posters that read, “Save Sunday Funday,” a beloved term for recreational boaters.


Richard Gomez, of the Key West Charter Boat Association, pictured center, listens to proposals from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary along with other boat captains on Monday, Sept. 23, 2019.

Gwen Filosa

The sanctuary calls the proposal a “restoration blueprint,” a 581-page report issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in August.

The plan includes major new ideas to protect marine life and corals that would limit fishing, restrict what cruise ships can dump at sea and regulate the boats on which many people live near shore.

Also, the sanctuary is considering the idea of creating eight no-fishing zones: Turtle Rocks and Turtle Shoal of Marathon; Western Sambo Reef south of Boca Chica in the Lower Keys; the Tortugas Corridor in Tortugas National Park; Pickles Reef in Key Largo; Marathon Reef; Delta Shoal off Marathon, one off Key West and one in Long Key.

The public comment period runs through Jan. 31, 2020.


The meeting drew a large crowd to Key West High School’s auditorium on Monday, Sept. 23, 2019.

Gwen Filosa

The crowd included many who appeared to support some of the changes in the name of preserving marine life.

At one point, Stephen Werndli, who works in resource protection for the Sanctuary, said, “If you’re going to go in and just park in the spawning [area], you ultimately won’t have anything left to fish five years down the road.”

The comment drew enthusiastic applause.

Others were skeptical of the sanctuary’s work.

“I can understand their point of view,” said Ronnie Barton, 40, a mate in Key West. “At the same time, I think there’s enough regulations. We try to do what we can to protect the reef.”

Chip Veach, who with his sons run the Super Grouper 1, 2 and 3, said, “This puts so many of us out of business.”

But sanctuary officials said changes could help save the reef. It’s the least locals can do, as hurricanes and climate change loom over the ecosystem, they said.

“I for one am not ready to give up and just say it’s done, it’s global, we can’t do anything,” said Sarah Fangman, the Sanctuary’s superintendent.

Fangman, speaking through a cordless microphone, she raised her hands in a surrender pose.

“I for one thing we can do something. We can do things here that will help our system be stronger and more resilient,” she told the crowd.


Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary Superintendent Sarah Fangman, left, and policy analyst Beth Dieveney, speak to a crowd in Key West on Monday, Sept. 23, 2019, about proposed changes to fishing rules.

Gwen Filosa

Fangman said the Sanctuary staff realizes that people fear changes could affect their livelihoods.

“Every one of us wants these resources to be healthy so we can continue to enjoy them well into the future,” Fangman said.

Congress designated the sanctuary in 1990, and the original environmental management plan was created in 1997. The proposed new rules will be the first update to that plan.

“Unfortunately, many of these resources are at risk,” she said. “People recognize things are changing. We need to have a conversation. Plan for the future. Address what challenges and what threats we can.”


Sarah Fangman, the superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

“The proposal speaks to limiting commercial operators to Blue Star operators,” said Beth Dieveney, a sanctuary policy analyst. “Your public comment matters for this concept of limiting use and if and how it can be implemented.

Public comment meetings are scheduled for Sept. 30 in Marathon at Marathon Middle High School, 350 Sombrero Beach Road and Oct. 7 in Tavernier at Coral Shores High School, 89901 Old Highway.

Meetings run from 6 to 9 p.m.

The next meeting in Key West is set for Oct. 15 from 1 to 9 p.m. at the Marriott Beachside Hotel, 3841 N. Roosevelt Blvd. Public comment starts at 6 p.m..

Oct. 15 is the start of stone crab season and Sanctuary officials said the evening period will help people fit it into their day.

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