Key West Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President Virginia Panico brought marine sanctuary recommendations to the attention of the Key West city commission last week after the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary’s Advisory Committee suggested stopping commercial fishing in certain areas of the Keys to help the marine ecosystem.

“Think about not getting fresh fish at local restaurants. Recreational and commercial fishing would move to other areas in Florida,” Panico said from the podium at the Key West City Commission meeting last week.

Panico is the head of the Florida Keys Federation of Chambers of Commerce, comprised of all five groups in the Keys. Each has passed a carefully worded resolution that recognizes conservation of the fisheries as vital, however denies the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary’s authority to make changes it says are the purview of U.S. Congress, the governor of Florida or the Florida legislature.

Panico’s presentation prompted the Key West City Commission to direct its attorney, Shawn Smith, to compose a resolution backing local fishing charter owners in their battle against increasing regulations of the protected waters surrounding the Florida Keys.

A similar resolution came before the Marathon City Council on Tuesday, but the vote was deferred until Councilman Richard Keating could read the resolution in its entirety.

Regardless, the resolution might be putting the cart before the horse.

NOAA Communication Specialist Rachael Pawlitz said there are many misconceptions about what regulations, if any, are going to be placed on marine zones.

“The estimated time any changes to the marine sanctuary would happen is late 2016. Before that will be a 90-day public comment period where we gain the community’s input,” Pawlitz said.

Despite all the publicity, so far the only development has been proposals by the Sanctuary’s advisory committee. The leadership of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has yet to state an opinion, nor pass any recommendations to the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA).

There are only three large zones where fishing is not allowed, called “Ecological Reserves,” but there are other, smaller no-take zones where fishing is not allowed (for example the SPA’s).

“Currently, there are only three Ecological Reserves (ERs), large zones designated by the sanctuary where fishing is prohibited. There is one off Boca Chica called Western Sambo and two areas in the Tortugas.

Ten years after the Western Sambo was zoned an ER, the sanctuary has reported that all hogfish, grouper, red grouper were in greater numbers in and outside the protected area. It is called the spillover effect according to Pawlitz. NOAA also did a Tortugas studied that showed the shrimp population rebound after four years.

“We recognize the delicate balance between our tourism-driven economy and the need to preserve our fisheries,” said Daniel Samess, head of the Marathon Chamber of Commerce. “Closing more areas to fishing needs to be considered very carefully.”

Keys Charter Boatman’s Association helped the Federation of Chambers author the resolution. Boatman’s Board Member Walter Kirchner said the marine closure areas will hurt the industry.

“If they make more protected areas that means more miles to go out and a higher gas expense. All we do is drag baits across the surface of the water,” Keys Charter Boatman’s Association Board Member Walter Kirchner said. “We are about preserving the marine environment but NOAA needs to show scientific data.”

People concerned with NOAA regulations should look to the Draft Environmental Statement the group is releasing later this year.


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