Tony Young and a crew of free divers keep watch for fish below as a small piece of plastic floats by. The plastic issue is much larger than most of us can wrap our heads around and every piece counts. This one of the issues the Blue Star Fishing Program is trying to bring to light, especially considering that 46% of plastic in our oceans is discarded fishing nets and gear. IAN WILSON/Keys Weekly

By IAN WILSON

There are many different initiatives in the Florida Keys that are aimed at protecting our local natural environments. From seagrass and coral restoration to water quality and fisheries management, passionate groups are working diligently to ensure the health and integrity of our home for years to come. 

Among these initiatives are the Blue Star programs created by NOAA’s Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS). The most recent of these programs, Blue Star Fishing Guides, was established in 2018 to help provide local charter fishing operators with the materials to teach their clients about the issues affecting our environments and fisheries throughout the Keys. With hundreds of thousands of people fishing on our waters every year (48% fishing of 2.25 million people visiting) it made sense for NOAA to get local guides involved in the conservation efforts, especially since many of them already have extensive knowledge of our ecosystems and are aware of the potential impacts to our economy (their livelihoods) if nothing is done. 

According to NOAA’s website, “The Blue Star Fishing Guide program recognizes guides who are committed to sustainable fishing practices and educating their customers about resource protection in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The voluntary training and compliance program seeks to increase fishing guides’ knowledge and, ultimately, that of their clients, to conserve the unique marine ecosystem of the Florida Keys. In the Florida Keys, approximately 20 percent of the region’s recreation is dedicated to sport fishing.” 

Nicole Uibel, the Blue Star Fishing Guide program coordinator, came to the Keys wanting to bridge the gap between research and education. Through NOAA, she found a way to do that by collaborating with local fishing guides to support a sustainable Florida Keys marine fishery. Since the inception of the Blue Star Fishing Guide program a year ago, 12 guides have joined the program. “Most of these guides are already doing this work,” she said. “They all care about the environment and have been educating their clients in their own ways up until this point. We’re here to allow them to take that education a step further. We provide online training for our captains and their crew that go over general education about our national marine sanctuaries, our diverse habitats, and our fisheries.” 

It is still early in the program’s history but judging by the success of the Blue Star Diving program, the fishing program is looking promising. According to Uibel, one tangible example of the diving program being a success is that divers are 2.5 times less likely to come in contact with coral after a Blue Star briefing while aboard a diving charter. For the fishing program, some hopes would be to reduce fish mortality rate upon being released, prevent unnecessary pollutants from entering their habitats, and to encourage self-controlled fishing limits that don’t follow the “catch as many as you can” mentality that is so common here in the Keys. 

I recently joined Capt. Tony Young during a wahoo spearfishing trip aboard Forever Young Charter Company. Young was one of the first guides to sign up for the Blue Star Fishing program and is the only guide in the Keys currently who holds both the Blue Star Fishing and Diving certifications. 

“The NOAA Blue Star program is here for us,” Young said. “They want to support local charter businesses that promote sustainable fishing and diving practices. Blue Star also provides us with educational tools and training programs for our crew; this helps us provide the very best on water experience for our guests. We’ve been involved with the program since day one. Our business was just getting started and we were barely running trips. Since then, it’s been an absolute pleasure and we get great engagement from our clients who want to learn about what’s going on down here. At the end of the day, it’s all about connecting people to the environment. They start to realize how unique and special the ecosystems in the Florida Keys are, their appreciation grows and they begin to understand why local conservation efforts are so important. Every charter is an opportunity to connect our guests with the Keys, and over time, I hope they want to protect these ecosystems as I do.” 

Fishing guides recognized as Blue Star are required to follow legal and ethical standards as well as conservation measures such as proper fish handling. Best practices include using gear suited to the size of fish targeted and employing proper techniques and tools to revive fish if they are released. Blue Star guidelines also encourage the use of barbless circle hooks whenever practical, and limit catch to what clients want for their own use. In Tony’s case, he often focuses on spearfishing, which is a fishing method that completely removes the risk of by-catch, as well as prevents any fishing tackle from entering the environment. Specific fish such as invasive lionfish can be targeted while spearfishing. Removing these fish not only provides a tasty meal but also helps the reef system. 

“We are not here to fill the boat with fish, but rather provide a fun and educational fishing experience,” he said. “If you can’t eat it, we don’t take it. We have to think about our future. I want my kids to be able to experience the ocean as we have. With some hard work, I believe they could even see a healthier Florida Keys than we have today. In the long run, I want my kids to know how hard I worked to protect the places I love.” 

There are many others like Young who understand the value of our natural resources and how fragile they can be when facing adversity. With more changes happening to our environment every year, it’s never been more important to participate consciously with our natural world front and center in our minds. If you’d like to leave a positive impact on this archipelago many of us call home, consider booking a trip with a local Blue Star Fishing Guide. A list is at NOAA’s Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary website: floridakeys.noaa.gov/onthewater/bluestar.html.

Fishing guides interested in becoming a Blue Star operator should contact the coordinator at [email protected]. 

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