Just below the surface of Biscayne National Park, sergeant majors dart around coral sprouting on the wreck of the 112-foot long Mandalay, a luxury yacht once trimmed in brass and ivory. Blue parrotfish and a rainbow of tropical species eat, mate and fight to survive among the ribs of the rotted hull.
Beauty is never far from peril aboard the Mandalay. Life bustles.
But look closer and something’s missing: big fish. No grouper or mutton snapper crowd the wreck, key residents on a healthy Florida reef.
Having Miami as a next-door neighbor has taken a severe toll on the 270-square-mile park over the last three decades. Over-fishing has slammed stocks — more than 70 percent of 17 species are down — while anchors, traps lines and heavy boat traffic have crushed corals and raked seagrass meadows. More than 11,000 prop scars mar flats. Only six percent of its reefs remain. On Friday, the National Park Service will unveil a new general management plan intended to start reversing the decline with a suite of new rules for visitors that will, for the first time, include a controversial “no-fishing” marine reserve.
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The plan, 15 years in the making and long mired in tugs-of-war between varied interests, tries to balance protecting the park with finding better ways for the public to enjoy it, said Superintendent Brian Carlstrom.
“We need to give the reef the best chance we can to be as good as possible,” Carlstrom said. “We would love to have a very healthy, fully representative Florida reef right here in Biscayne National Park.”
But not everyone is happy with some of the changes — not expected to formally go into effect until at least next year — arguing that lack of enforcement, not rules, have caused many problems. In addition to the 10,500-acre marine reserve, no-motor and idle speed zones are being expanded to protect seagrass flats and islands where wading birds nest.
“You could kill manatees out there and nobody would stop you. There’s zero enforcement,” said Capt.. Bob Branham, a fishing guide for more than three decades who has spent more days on, than off the bay waters. “I know in a management plan they have to figure out what’s going to happen in the future but they haven’t enforced any of the stuff in the last management plan. So to say it doesn’t work is BS.”
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also sees the reserve as “a management measure of last resort,” and has only supported such restrictions when it has been “scientifically demonstrated,” they work, spokeswoman Amanda Nalley said in an email. U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen also opposes restricting public use, calling for the plan to “ensure access for all.”
But Carlstrom and scientists say the park has reached a tipping point, where urgent action is required. Carlstrom also points out that for 90 percent of the park, the old rules will remain the same.
“We’ve gotta do something,” said Jerald Ault, a University of Miami marine ecosystem biologist. “The reserves aren’t the panacea. But they’re one important part of the strategy. By having a small closure, you’re enhancing the whole system. And if you take the last fish out, that’s the last fish.”
While fishing will be restricted in the reserve — with the exception of invasive lionfish that can still be speared — other activities will be allowed. Boaters can tie off to mooring buoys that will be added. Snorkeling and diving will be permitted. The plan also expands idle speed zones east of Elliott Key in an effort to save seagrass and reduce accidents at the popular weekend spot. Idle speed zones are also being extended along the mangrove coastline on the mainland.
The plan also expands no motor zones around the Featherbed Banks and parts of Caesar Creek, a move that particularly irks flats guides who practice catch and release when pursuing bonefish and tarpon in the bay.
The new management plan has been in the works for about 15 years, which isn’t unheard of. Everglades National Park has been wrestling with a management plan for over a dozen years. The rules technically take effect in a month, following another 30 days of public comment.
But implementing the changes will take more time, Carlstrom said. Formal regulations detailing how the plan will be carried out aren’t expected until 2016.
This final plan comes after numerous revisions. Park officials say they have received over 43,000 emails and letters. Nearly two dozen public hearings were held. New research based on findings from a reserve in the Dry Tortugas also shaped the decision.
“The Tortugas is going to be a shiny example of this thing working really well,” Ault said. “It’s not like it’s coming from left field.”
The 151-mile reserve south of Key West was established in 2001 amid increasing research showing a decline in fish, particularly the grouper and snapper who make a reef healthy by eating damsel fish and snail that consume coral and provide the excrement that keep reefs fertile. In 2013, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study found that black and red grouper, yellowtail and mutton snapper increased not only in number, but in size both in the reserve and adjacent waters. Annual spawnings of mutton snapper, which had disappeared, returned. Commercial catches in the area increased, the study found.
“At some point, they will migrate out where they can be caught. So you really need a network of reserves,” said Martin Arostegui, a retired doctor and record-holding angler who has long promoted one for Biscayne National.
Ultimately, the park service settled on a plan that takes an aggressive approach to protecting reefs — the reserve represents a third of the park’s tract — while trying to improve the experience of everyday visitors. Plans are underway for a taxi from Convoy Point to Elliott and Boca Chita keys to provide non-boaters with a way to see the park, Carlstrom said. And while anchors are banned in the reserve, more mooring buoys will be installed.
The plan comes a year after the park proposed a complicated fishery management plan with the state that has also raised concerns among anglers and commercial fishermen. That plan, which proposes banning commercial fishing as well as increased limits on catch size and number, aims to increase the overall size and abundance of fish by 20 percent. That’s a steep goal considering the dramatic decline in fish increasingly threatened by problems from rising temperatures and ocean acidification linked to climate change. The state of Florida opposes the ban on commercial fishing in that proposal.
Commercial fishermen worry that restrictions will place pressure on other areas, particularly the Keys, said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association.
But supporters point out that many national parks restrict hunting, including Everglades National Park.
“There probably isn’t a national park from here to Yellowstone that doesn’t have some type of reserve,” said Jack Curlett, a yacht company owner and board member of the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida who has long argued for a reserve.
In 2014, the park lost 96 percent of its remaining endangered elkhorn coral, clustered in an area known as Marker 3, after a bleaching event, said Elsa Alvear, the park’s resource management chief. That event, she said, shows just how fragile life in the park can be.
“It will take a really, really long time to recover, if it recovers at all,” she said.