“There’s poison in our water.”

My name is Joe Weatherby.

I have been a professional captain, diver, fisherman, snorkeler, unsuccessful treasure hunter and constant conservationist in the Florida Keys and Key West for over 30 years.

I have spent my entire adult life working in and around these waters primarily engaged in augmenting fishing and diving opportunities through the creation of artificial reefs. I initially joined the SAC to make sure artificial reefs were not eliminated as part of a solution to rapidly disappearing marine habitat.

Given the catastrophic decline in the state of our environment, I’m not surprised this community is up in arms.

I did not oppose the initial formation of the FKNMS, as I believed we needed to do SOMETHING. Now, 30 years on, things are worse environmentally, but I believe the causes for this are likely bigger than we are currently considering. The Restoration Blueprint is in DRAFT form. I have been asked to listen to my community’s comments regarding especially scuba diving activities in the Lower Keys. I am doing that. Sanctuary officials have said repeatedly that after this first round of comments, written and oral, there would be another version or more of the Blueprint. I expect that.

I understand the mistrust that exists, given the turbulent history between the FKNMS and the community. I also regularly see the reef dead and dying and believe that all who live here should attend the meetings and provide written and oral comment to maker things better.  I do not believe that the FKNMS is correct regarding many of the suggestions offered in the Blueprint, but the sanctuary has the distinction of being the only group trying to plan something better.

I sat in many, many meetings listening to science and offering input based years of observation underwater. I listened to people I respect offer their own observations as well.

I, too, have honed my own powers of observation in the water through years of practice. There are some things I can see: I can see that artificial reefs work and work well. The notion often put forth that “the jury is still out on artificial reefs” is nonsense. The verdict on artificial reefs has been in for centuries.  The artificial reefs deployed in the FKNMS may be the only observeable working changes in the FKNMS since the beginning.  The State of Florida, with over 2,500 permitted artificial reefs and 400 ships deployed since the mid-‘80s, is in the artificial reefs business because it works. We need more NOW!

Weatherby helped sink the Vandenberg Wreck on May 27, 2009. It is now an artificial reef in 140 feet of water in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, 7 miles off Key West. JOE WEATHERBY/Contributed

As stated, I’m not a scientist, and certainly not a fisheries biologist. But I do see fish stocks declining. I haven’t seen a Nassau Grouper in the water in 10 years. My (unexpressed) ideas around fisheries center around not killing fish when they’re pregnant. When I hear (never observed) of chumming for pregnant Mutton Snapper with Amberjack roe, my instinct is that we ought to be looking at the issue a little more closely.

At every single meeting I’ve attended over the years the first and most prominent issue cited by all in the room is water quality. We all agree that this is issue number 1, yet it’s not even mentioned in the Restoration Blueprint. It absolutely needs to be. We have spent millions of dollars on studies, salaries, vehicles, travel and marketing of our Sanctuary.

A water test costs $100, yet we do not use them. I think the stinky and alternately tea-colored or electric lime-green liquid coming south from Okeechobee, the Caloosahatchee, the St Lucie and Everglades through the sluices is not water at all, but toxic waste. We’ve had the coral version of Ebola coming down the east coast and biblical plague of fish die-offs down the west. There’s poison in our water. And we need to address that before we do anything else in the marine sanctuary that is our shared backyard.

— Capt. Joe Weatherby

Captain Joe Weatherby is a professional captain, diver and artificial reef developer. He has lived in Key West for more than 30 years.

He spearheaded the sinking of the Vandenberg artificial reef off Key West and has been a volunteer member of the Sanctuary Advisory Council for the past nine years. He currently holds the Lower Keys seat representing the Dive Industry.

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council will meet wat 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 10 at the Islander Resort, 82100 Overseas Hwy., Islamorada. Members will discuss NOAA’s proposed changes to the sanctuary’s boundaries, marine zones, regulations and management plan. Public oral and written comment on the Restoration Blueprint will be accepted at the meeting. Meetings are streamed live on YouTube.

The Restoration Blueprint is available at floridakeys.noaa.gov/blueprint. NOAA is taking public comment on the proposals through Jan. 31, 2020. Comments may be submitted online at www.regulations.gov (docket number NOAA-NOS-2019-0094).

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