Every year more than 700,000 divers and snorkelers take to the water to discover the wonder and beauty of coral reefs in the Florida Keys. JUSTIN WADE THORNTON/Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

More law enforcement and education, as well the need for better water quality, were among the sentiments relayed by residents during a public comment session on the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary’s Restoration Blueprint on Sept. 20 at Coral Shores High School auditorium. 

A revised draft management plan unveiled to the public in July detailed a variety of new marine zones, regulations and a sanctuary expansion to 4,795 square miles. Sanctuary officials say the latest proposal recognized a host of comments from the Restoration Blueprint’s release in 2019 that contained four proposals. 

Public comment on the latest proposal started mid-July. Residents can provide their opinion in writing by visiting now through Oct. 21. They also had the chance to issue their response via the microphone inside the Coral Shores High School auditorium as sanctuary officials listened. 

Glenn Paton was among the 20-plus commenters on Sept. 20. He said a 2011 condition report showed the sanctuary was in fair to poor condition. Eleven years later, he said, it’s still going downhill. 

“The most important thing to do, but politically almost impossible, is water quality,” said Paton, noting the difficulty in getting counties to the north to advance wastewater projects. “We need to improve water quality, that’s key to making the sanctuary better.”

Bill Kelly, Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association executive director, noted the challenges taking in a 356-page Restoration Blueprint with no table of contents or page numbers.

“The reality is the Restoration Blueprint is a report card for the sanctuary. Right now it’s a failing grade. We’ve had management for over 30 years and continue to have numerous problems,” he said.

Kelly went on to note that development and a growing number of users on the Keys waters are contributing to a decline in water quality that’s bringing algal blooms of enormous proportions. He also said the sanctuary must also address law enforcement, which “we have barked about for decades here.”

Dianne Harbaugh, of the Islamorada Charter Boat Association, also expressed the need for education, enforcement and water. In addition, she said the plan needs to be friendly to artificial reefs. 

“It’s not really stated much in the plan how you want to address that,” she said. 

Some commenters took issue with the proposed no-entry zone for Pelican Key Wildlife Management Area at Sunset Cove in Key Largo. According to the blueprint, the closure seeks to protect shallow seagrasses, decrease disturbance of manatees and roosting and wading birds, including magnificent frigatebirds and pelicans. Joseph Mastrangelo Jr., owner of Veteran Sailing Association, said he’s never seen anyone on the island besides kids snorkeling. 

“I’ve never seen anyone molest or harm the creatures,” he said. “The no-entry zone is absurd in every manner.”

Ginette Hughes, of MarineLab, said children coming through the program have snorkeled at Pelican Key. She acknowledged support for Pelican Key’s closure. 

“We go there a lot and we know how special it is. We talk about sanctuary to our students. If the sanctuary wasn’t there it’d be so much worse,” she said. 

Sanctuary officials held an in-person comment session at Marathon High School on Sept. 21. A final in-person comment session is set for Thursday, Sept. 22 at 6 p.m. at Key West High School. 

Residents have until Oct. 26 to voice their opinion or in person at an Oct. 18 meeting of the Sanctuary Advisory Council at 9 a.m. in Marathon. People can also visit to submit their comments. In the past 90 days, more than 630 comments were made to the federal website.

Jim McCarthy is one of the many Western New Yorkers who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since he graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 4-plus years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim is past president of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. Jim is a sports fanatic who loves to watch football, hockey, mixed martial arts and golf. He also enjoys time with family and his new baby boy, Lucas, who arrived Oct. 4, 2022.