Because of social distancing, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary met virtually instead of in person for its March sanctuary advisory council meeting. 

“As you know, we are at an important time for updating Sanctuary regulations and management plans. The Sanctuary Advisory Council (SAC) plays a critical role in this process,” said sanctuary policy analyst Beth Dieveney. “While the virtual format is more limiting than a longer, in-person gathering, this meeting served to keep this important process moving forward.”

The original 5-month comment period on the Restoration Blueprint, which ended Jan. 31 of this year, was marked by outspoken crowds, lots of questions and over 1,000 individual public comments. Over 32,000 individuals were represented in the process due to various sign-on letters.

The majority of these comments came from Monroe County residents, but some out-of-towners who care deeply about the sanctuary also commented, said Dieveney. NOAA also received comments from local municipalities, as well as state and federal agencies. 

During Tuesday’s webcast, council members discussed Restoration Blueprint proposals as NOAA refines boundary, regulation, marine zone and management plan proposals into a new draft rule. Eighty-eight people attended virtually.

The “Priorities and Inputs” document guiding the meeting laid out hot-button topics and the SAC’s recommended action, addressing everything from water quality to channel markers.

On the contested issue of catch-and-release fishing by trolling in specific Sanctuary Preservation Areas (SPAs), the SAC supported the “status quo” option of leaving the exception in place for fishermen and called any other determination “premature” until zone boundaries are “crystal clear.” The SAC also called for revisiting this issue once boundaries are clear and “trolling” is clearly defined.

Regarding limited commercial use on popular reefs, the SAC deviated from the preferred alternative and “does not support the idea of Blue Star Dive/Snorkel Operators being the only commercial operators granted access to these or any other area.” While acknowledging the merits of the Blue Star programs, the SAC noted they are and should remain strictly voluntary, and that access restrictions should “focus on commercial users, not the general public.”

The need for more mooring buoys and channel markers was one of many topics discussed at the virtual Sanctuary Advisory Council meeting on March 24. WEEKLY FILE PHOTO

Dieveney noted, “Public comment is an important part of the review process.” She assured that all input is being taken into consideration. Public comments for the meeting were taken by email and shared with SAC members.

The primary goal of the half-day online meeting was to clarify proposals addressed in the Restoration Blueprint and to highlight issues for SAC input, said Dieveney. 

Next up, SAC members will respond in an online survey, which will be placed into the SAC record and be made publicly available. Once final SAC input and comment from state partners are received, NOAA/Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary will draft a new rule. 

That rule will be a single proposal outlining updated or new sanctuary boundaries, regulations and marine zones, said Dieveney. That rule will also go out for a second round of public and agency comments, which will inform any final updated Sanctuary regulations.

The meeting was open to public viewing online and the recording is available on YouTube. The agenda and meeting priorities are available at floridakeys.noaa.gov/sac/meetings.html. To visit the Weekly’s complete coverage of the Restoration Blueprint, visit keysweekly.com/42/category/sanctuary-blueprint/.

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