Florida May Ban Spearfishing on Scuba and Lower Lobster Limits

OurFloridaReefs.org proposes to ban spearfishing on scuba. Image courtesy OurFloridaReefs.org

RMA N-59 sounds esoteric enough, but if Our Florida Reefs has its way, spearfishing while scuba diving will soon be illegal in Florida. RMA is an acronym for Recommended Management Action, and Our Florida Reefs (OFR) has 68 of them prepared to impact what all Floridians and our tourists can and cannot do in, on, or under the sea here in South Florida. Some of those impacts seem reasonable and logical such as creating coral reef gardens assuming funding can be found, while others are likely to create quite a bit of controversy.

RMA S-97 proposes to reduce the Lobster Mini-Season bag limits from 12 lobsters to only 6 lobsters per person per day. RMA S-87 suggests making the collection of parrot fish and surgeon fish illegal whether as by-catch in a lobster trapping loophole or as tropical aquarium fish. RMA N-146, which may have the most impact, could help establish no-take zones and no-anchor areas all along the coast. In other words, there will be government agencies telling you where you can and cannot anchor your boat and whether you can fish or dive at all in certain areas.

“I’m all for protecting our reefs. And I think a lot of their suggestions can help. But banning spearfishing for scuba divers I don’t think is the right answer. I personally prefer to hunt freediving, but taking the sport away for scuba divers isn’t right.”Anthony Gualtieri of Fort Lauderdale

Particularly disturbing is RMA S-54 that proposes that Florida apply to UNESCO for the Florida Reef Tract to be Designated a World Heritage Site. While that may sound reasonable at first glance, the deeper concept of a US state granting a foreign entity control and protection over its natural resources is a slippery slope that relieves Florida and, in turn, the United States of some of its sovereignty. Treasure hunting and marine archaeology would come to an immediate halt and would likely result in confiscations and lease terminations throughout Florida.

OFR is a community planning process intended to bring together a variety of reef users and stakeholders together with agencies like the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), and a host of scientists and professionals from various marine-related industries like commercial fishing, dive shops, and the like.

Meghan Balling discusses some of the stresses on Florida’s coral reefs including the Hallandale Outfall, where partially treated sewage spews into the Atlantic on a daily basis. Photo Credit: Branon Edwards

The process began officially in June 2013 with 30-second public service announcements on National Public Radio, local news channels, and some other media outlets. Those announcements recruited a wide variety of people who applied, were interviewed, and chosen to participate in Community Working Groups. Two groups were formed, one in the North consisting of those in Martin and Palm Beach Counties and another in the South for Broward and Miami-Dade Counties. These groups would spend the next two years meeting on a monthly basis to brainstorm and develop ways to protect South Florida’s reef system.

Meghan Balling – Fishing, Diving, and Other Uses Coordinator at the FDEP’s Coral Reef Protection Program, and her colleagues call what is happening to the reef systems and ecosystems in these 4 counties “a death by a thousand cuts”. One of the first cuts is a survey that noted that only 48% of South Florida residents even know that there are any coral reefs north of the Keys. In fact, there are three nearly parallel reef lines that run for approximately 105 miles from the tip of Biscayne National Park all the way to the Saint Lucie Inlet. The first reef lies just a hundred yards or so off the beach in 10-15 feet of water and the third lies over a half mile offshore in 45 to 100 feet of water. These reef systems account for nearly $6 billion in annual sales and income in our four counties and approximately 61,000 local jobs. There is no doubt that many of these RMAs will have an impact on both of these numbers.

“There are so many other, less draconian solutions that can be proposed to FWC.” Kevin Swain of Coral Springs

In addition to helping support the growth of various fish and crustacean species that account for about 5 million pounds of the fresh seafood that end up on Florida dinner plates, the reef also is home to 45 species of hard corals like those that actually build the reef’s limestone base, 37 species of soft corals such as sea fans swaying with the current, and two of the world’s threatened corals, staghorn and elkhorn coral.

Over the last several decades, a number of threats have negatively impacted our reefs including the crushing effects of boat anchors and groundings, pollution and water quality issues from runoff, fertilizers, pesticides, and even sewage released into the sea by municipalities like Hallandale Beach and Boca Raton, marine debris and garbage, and the sheer number of people using the reefs in various recreational sports like fishing, diving, spearfishing, and lobstering. All of these “little cuts” take their toll on our reefs, and OFR and their teams of Community Working Groups have taken two years to present their 68 RMAs on how to protect this important resource.

At Force-E located at 1312 North Federal Highway in Pompano Beach on Wednesday night, dozens of local scuba divers, spearfishermen, and concerned citizens attended an informational briefing held by OFR to unveil and promote upcoming community meetings. While the majority of attendees were lying in wait ready to berate pseudo-science and tree-hugging or rather reef-hugging liberalism and defend spearfishing on scuba, this meeting was intended to simply inform folks of the process and get the ball rolling. The message of the day was that OFR desperately wants and needs community feedback on each of its 68 recommended actions. A series of meetings within the 4 counties over the coming weeks will serve to inform and invite ideas and questions.

All South Florida residents and those who visit our beaches and enjoy ocean-related activities should visit OurFloridaReefs.org and submit your comments and recommendations to any or all of their RMAs.

“Basing recommendations on outdated data, some of which is over 15 years old, will not be predictive of reef and fish health.The proposed reduction of lobster bag limits during lobster miniseason to prevent anchor damage and reef damage caused by irresponsible individuals does not relate. The income loss to FWC in license fees would eliminate potential funding for many of the programs even being recommended.”Bill Barnes of Pompano Beach

Ms. Balling advised that, while they appreciated everyone’s verbal comments, the only recommendations that would actually reach the work groups were those submitted in writing. The variety of alternative proposals, suggestions, and additional points of view presented just at Wednesday’s meeting were simply too voluminous for OFR to manage in any other way than in writing. Advisors James Byrne of the Nature Conservancy and Kurtis Gregg of ERT, Inc and former employee of SFWMD both reiterated the need for anyone who has some insight or an idea that might be useful to submit it via OFR’s site.

Our Florida Reef Community Meeting Schedule. Image courtesy OurFloridaReefs.org

Two sets of meetings are held on each day, the first from 12-2pm and the second from 6-8pm.

Ana Zangroniz, Awareness and Appreciation Coordinator at FDEP’s Coral Reef Protection Program said, “This process has been very rewarding to watch and facilitate because it really has brought together a wide spectrum of reef users and stakeholders, all with different experiences, learning from and influencing one another to create ideas and arrive at these draft recommendations. The working groups are hopeful to have large attendance at upcoming community meetings.” To clarify, yes, these are Draft Recommendations, and yes, you have an opportunity to have your voice heard!

Once the community meetings are completed, the Community Working Groups will reconvene to consider the additional input provided by the community at large. From there, OFR will submit its Recommended Management Actions to the appropriate government agencies. For example, RMA S-87, which proposes to ban any harvesting of reef herbivores like parrotfish and surgeonfish would submit their recommendation to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). The FWC would then decide whether or not to take on the action and work through their process, which could eventually become an amendment to the Marine Life Rules and be published as new fishing regulations.

For a List of Recommended Management Actions and to Comment: http://ourfloridareefs.org/rmacomment

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