An updated set of proposed rules and regulations to counteract a decline in resources within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) will go out to the public for review and input next month.
The next step in the Restoration Blueprint process, a draft rule, will be released to the public on July 12. The draft rule includes proposed management plan activities, boundary expansion, sanctuary-wide regulations and marine zones and zone-specific regulation.
A public input process on the draft rule will be similar to the blueprint’s initial release in August 2019 that led to a series of meetings and opportunities to submit comments through regulations.gov.
On June 21, the sanctuary’s advisory council convened for its first in-person meeting since the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Sarah Fangman, superintendent of FKNMS, said meetings with the public related to the draft rule will kick off roughly a month after its release to give people enough time to view the content. A virtual question-and-answer session is set for Aug. 16 from 6 to 9 p.m. A virtual public comment meeting is set for Aug. 30 from 6 to 9 p.m.
“People can start looking on July 12. If they have questions after reflection and want to participate, we’re going to make it virtual so people anywhere can participate,” Fangman said.
In addition, residents will have the opportunity to comment at in-person meetings on Sept. 20 at Coral Shores High School Performing Arts Center; Sept. 21 at Marathon High School auditorium; and Sept. 22 at Key West High School auditorium. All meetings begin at 6 p.m. Fangman said these meetings are in-person only.
The public will have another opportunity to provide public comment in person during an Oct. 18 meeting of the Sanctuary Advisory Council in Marathon (an exact location is still being determined).
Those who can’t make it to meetings can submit comments wherever and whenever through regulations.gov beginning July 13.
Fangman said a variety of materials, including videos, maps and text, will be released on the FKNMS Restoration Blueprint webpage for people to digest. For instance, people will be able to zoom in to their favorite spots to compare the existing rules to what’s being proposed.
“If the last time is any example, there will be a lot of public engagement and a lot of comments,” Fangman said.
Once the public comment portion concludes, Fangman said they will confer with sanctuary managers and state partners, like Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, to garner input. A final environmental impact statement and final rule and marine zones would follow, and that could take anywhere from nine months to a year.
“It’s in the hands of the community and leadership,” Fangman said. “Are we all willing to compromise a little bit in order to get something that’s better than nothing? It’s not going to be perfect.”
If final action is taken, it would be followed by an opportunity for review by the governor of Florida and Congress.
On Nov. 16, 1990, Congress designated the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Encompassing 3,800 square miles, the sanctuary protects open ocean, offshore reef tract and nearshore patch reefs, as well as seagrass meadows and fringing mangroves. The sanctuary is also home to maritime heritage resources that encompass a broad historical period.
A 2011 condition report on the sanctuary detailed declining water quality, habitats and key species due to coastal development, overfishing, vessel groundings and marine debris, among other factors. Since that report, the Keys experienced Hurricane Irma and an increase in boaters. A recent study by Bonefish & Tarpon Trust analyzed 93 South Florida bonefish for an average of seven pharmaceuticals in their systems. One fish had 17 pharmaceuticals.
It’s the first in-depth review of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary’s regulations and marine zoning approach since they were established in 1997. In the two decades since, the sanctuary said, a lot has been learned about what management tools work and where improvements can be made. The Restoration Blueprint seeks to create a balance between resource protection and sustainable use.
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is administered by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. The sanctuary is jointly managed by NOAA and the state of Florida per an agreement that sees FWC enforcing sanctuary regulations in partnership with sanctuary managers and the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement.