To: The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

The Lower Keys Guides Association appreciates the opportunity to comment during the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary’s Marine Zoning and Regulatory Review. As an association of Lower Keys flats fishing and light tackle guides, we are excited to offer our collective opinions on this process. As a group, our livelihoods depend on this incredible natural resource. While access is one of our major concerns, so too is the health of the ecosystem. The two go hand in hand. Unlimited access to a depleted fishery is equally as bad as no access to a healthy one. It is our hope, and our sense that the Sanctuary aims to find a healthy balance between the two extremes. To that end we offer the following ideas to help guide this mission. It is our opinion that the boundaries and general use regulation for the existing Lower Keys Wildlife Refuges (the Great White Heron, the Key Deer, and the Key West National Wildlife Refuges) should remain the same. They are the sound models of wise management.

As fishermen, we have the opportunity to fish the length of the Keys, and nowhere is the shallow water fishing experience better than in the waters of those three refuges. The numbers of fish, the health of the habitat and the quality of the experience are unrivaled elsewhere, with the exception of the Everglades National Park. This is not a coincidence. The Refuge management plan’s focus on protecting wildlife while recognizing historical uses of the ecosystem creates a highly functional refuge. Further, we strongly believe it is with the best interest of the Sanctuary to consider requiring catch and release (C&R) fishing in all its management decisions. C&R has a long and successful history in freshwater fisheries management worldwide, and has been the daily practice of flats fishermen for decades. When practiced correctly, it has almost zero accidental harvest and allows for continued use of the same resource. The fish most often targeted are hard to catch. The best example being the permit (Trachinotus falcatus). If a single one is caught on fly over the course of several days fishing, it is considered a success. This low catch rate is not indicative of their absence, just the challenge they offer. Yet anglers flock from all corners of the world for the opportunity.

This low impact/high dollar is the model of C&R. Additionally, C&R automatically limits use; rare is the fisherman who targets snapper and grouper with no hope of bringing one home. C&R offers a serviceable compromise. It simultaneously provides habitat/resource protection without adversely impacting the economics of fishing. So:

  • It is our belief that C&R is compatible with all current and future zone types. One exception is Research only zones.
  • Some site specific exceptions will exist. If the introduction or inclusion of C&R would result in obvious user conflict, it has no place (ex Looe Key SPA)

Greater flexibility and adaptive management of the resource (the fish and other animals, the habitat and the uses) should be built into the new Management plan. Some provision should be included that allow for fluid resource management as conditions of the habitat and uses of the resource change. We would like to see the Sanctuary be able to adapt quickly to changes (both positive and negative), to partner with user groups to identify such changes, and take appropriate regulatory action. This could include creating new zones to tackle unforeseen problems or removing zones if they’re no longer needed.

Additionally, while these might not fall within the scope of this process, we feel that Monroe County /FKNMS needs to be managed as its own fisheries region. The waters of Monroe County and the Sanctuary fall between two NOAA fisheries sub-regions and their associated management councils (SE Atlantic and Gulf) which often have differing regulations. It requires Keys fishermen to adhere by two separate sets of rules, hold two separate sets of permits/license, and to deal with two separate councils. Ideally, the creation of a new Keys specific sub-region would resolve these problems while better serving a resource that holds little in common with the majority of the other two subregions. At the very least, a shift in the boundary between the two existing subregions so the Keys fall into one or the other would be a workable solution.

Similarly, action must be taken in response to the over-harvest of Mutton Snappers during their spawn. The obvious Sanctuary-led solution would be to close (temporal or otherwise) the spawning aggregation areas. While this would certainly end the over-harvest, it would also be devastating to many fishermen, and not just those targeting the Muttons. Those same spawning aggregation areas hold many other varieties of fish. A better solution would be a change in bag limits. The current limit of 10 per person per day is unsustainable. We recommend a bag limit of 3 per person per day, with only a single daily trip allowed per vessel. Again, we understand that this is not within the scope of the review, but perhaps with a little nudge, the FWC could handle this harvest problem, in far less time, and remove the need for closure.

Lastly, below please find a list of proposed zones (with descriptions) designed to limit conflict between fishermen and other users. We think these zones would provide needed protection to habitat and those fishing here, yet in no way interfere with wise use by other users. Included is a series of charts outlining the areas we reference.

Thank you for your time. We look forward to working together throughout this process.

Capt. John O’Hearn
President Lower Keys Guides Assc

Proposed zones to protect sensitive areas and relieve user conflict.

  • Key Lois (Loggerhead basin): this should be a temporal catch and release pole/ troll zone (Feb-June). This basin is highly used by migratory tarpon and flats fishermen from Feb thru the end of June. It is also located near highly populated areas and a heavily trafficked channel (Bow Channel). This zone would limit conflict between boaters “cutting corners” thru the basin and flats fishermen targeting tarpon there. After June, the basin is no longer used by tarpon and thus these restrictions would not be necessary.
  • Content Keys and Upper Harbor Key: This should be a year round, catch and release, pole/troll zone; except for Content Pass which should be marked and remain open use to allow transit between the basin and the Gulf. Many non fishing boaters ignore the channel and “run” the grass flats in order to reach shallow sandy areas or the Gulf. This zone would end this practice, limiting conflict between flats fishermen and boaters while protecting shallow grass meadows.
  • Pearl basin: This should be a temporal idle only area (Feb-July) from Calda to Pearl Banks and between the NW Channel and Man o’ War Harbor. This zone would relieve conflict between fishermen and boats transiting the basin headed to the NW Channel.
  • Seaplane basin: This should be a temporal idle only zone (Feb-June). Like Loggerhead Basin, this area will seasonally hold large numbers of tarpon and flats fishermen, but is located near a high traffic area. The zone would prevent conflict between flats fishermen and other boaters, but would in no way hinder traffic through the area.
  • Western Sambo Ecological Reserve: The northern quadrant (<10ft) of this zone should be idle only and opened up to allow catch and release fishing and bait harvest (with permit).
  • Marvin Key and the Barracuda Keys: This zone should be a year round, catch and release, pole/troll, with idle only alternative in navigable channels. Like the Content/Upper Harbor zone, this zone will protect shallow fishing areas and relieve
  • Moser Channel banks: This should be an idle only zone. Due to their location, the lack of navigational features in, and the poorly draw charts of the area, the banks are hard to locate and are susceptible to boat groundings . An Idle only zone would eliminate this problem, while preserving fishing access.
  • Boca Grande Key to Woman Key: This should be an idle only, catch and release zone, with a bait harvest exception (permit required). Such zoning would help to protect grass flat from grounding and limit user conflict in a high traffic area.
  • Marquesas: This area should be protected as a catch and release only zone. This area, most frequently utilized by flats guides could benefit from C&R regulations. The only exception to this is that bait harvest should be allowed (with permit).
  • Lakes area (LaVina Bank): This zone should be a year round idle only area, with the Little Mullet channel remaining normal use. This zone will protect grass flats/ fishing areas from damage by unknowledgeable boaters in what is a poorly marked and poorly mapped area.
  • Tarpon Migration Lane: Consideration should be given to establishing a temporal (April-June) idle only zone to protect the Oceanside migratory travel lanes used by Tarpon (Megalops atlanticus). The water they frequent (<10ft) is heavily used by boaters. This traffic greatly effects this species and generates daily conflict between fisherman and other users.

Attached Maps