The breadbasket of Biscayne Bay isn’t so bountiful anymore.
There are fewer fish. And the ones that remain are smaller. Shrimp trawlers have mowed rolling sea grass meadows to the quick. Sponges are almost gone. If there’s coral, it’s mostly rubble.
So Biscayne National Park is proposing drastic measures: phasing out commercial fishing in park waters, ending the beloved two-day lobster mini season and imposing a host of new restrictions that park managers hope will revive the vast, 270-square-mile underwater wilderness that once teemed with bonefish, snapper, sea turtles and hundreds of other species.
“We recognize that this is a significant change to existing conditions and any time you’re doing that, regardless of the topic, you’re going to get resistance. It’s just human,” said park superintendent Brian Carlstrom, who stressed the plan is “not something we propose to do overnight.”
In fact, the rules evolved at a glacial pace over 15 years as three different superintendents struggled to win support from the state, which manages wildlife in parts of the park, and balance the competing interests of environmental groups, anglers and commercial fishermen.
The park’s general plan, a broader blueprint that will address more-contentious matters — like whether to ban fishing entirely from some areas or weekend parties by boaters that scar flats and kill sea grass — is still in the works.
For some, the fishing restrictions are long overdue.
“We need to change the rules so the babies can grow,” Jesse Martinez, a 47-year-old Homestead truck driver, said last week as he coached his wife and son on a new kayak at Convoy Point. A lifelong fisherman and father of nine with tattoos on both mango-sized biceps and a fishing sweet spot near Mile Marker 62 on Conch Key, Martinez says he has seen the bay suffer during his lifetime.
“Twenty years from now, you won’t see no fish if you keep fishing like this,” he said.
That’s exactly the point the park service hopes to make with the new plan, which would take about a year to finalize but is drawing fire for being too restrictive.
In addition to ending the mini lobster haul and making today’s commercial fleet the park’s last, changes would:
• Dramatically raise the catch size on popular fish, including some kinds of grouper and snapper, and lower the number allowed in an effort to increase fish populations by 20 percent.
• Outlaw spear guns and allow spearfishing only on tank-less, free dives to further boost the fishery.
• Establish no-trawl zones for shrimpers to restore sea grass and other bottom habitats.
• Make some reefs off-limits to lobster and crab traps to protect coral from the heavy damage caused by debris and tangled lines.
In 1980, when the park was expanded by 72,000 acres, the National Park Service struck a deal with the state that allowed Florida wildlife officers, overseen by a board appointed by the governor, to regulate the new territory. But the park — with a focus on conservation — enforces the law in the original territory, called the Monument. That has resulted in an awkward marriage.
“The park represents the water and bottom, but the state still wants control over the fish,” said Jack Curlett, who chaired the citizens committee that hosted public meetings on the plan and recommended changes. “The bottom line is it still is a national park, and it should be held to a higher level.”
But state regulators, who endorse the plan, insist recreation must be part of the equation.
“One of our biggest concerns was to make sure there was still fishing,” said Amanda Nalley, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “It’s a balance between what the resource needs and what the users want.”
On Friday, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, called the rules too restrictive.
“Like many in our community, my family loves to get out on the water. All of us share a profound respect for this delicate resource and the need to protect it as much as we cherish it. But the park’s restrictive recommendations seemingly seek to eliminate the average individual and their family,” she said in a statement.
“There is certainly a balance that needs to be made between protecting our ecosystem and using it — sadly, this plan does not seem to lay out a reasonable compromise that meets that goal,” she said.
Even with new restrictions, some conservationists say park managers are wimping out. When Curlett’s working group was created, the state signed off on it only if members promised not to consider a no-take zone, or reserve.
“We feel like the only way to protect species is to have a reserve inside the old Monument,” said Laura Reynolds, executive director of Tropical Audubon.
As of November, more than 17,000 people submitted comments supporting the reserve, said Caroline McLaughlin, a program analyst for the National Parks Conservation Association.
“There’s broad-based support from different users and people all over the country who are essentially the owners of the national parks,” she said.
For now, park managers say they will deal with the no-fish zone in the broader general plan, which should be finalized this winter. Specifics for the fishery plan will be ironed out over the next year to 18 months as the feds and state begin the rule-making process, which will include public hearings.
One thing that is certain is phasing out commercial fishing, which commercial fishers argue will be devastating. Families, they say, will lose shrimping and trapping businesses handed down through the generations. And the effects will surely ripple: When the shrimpers close up, the mom-and-pop bait shops that depend on the shrimpers’ catch will suffer. And without park waters, they contend, fishermen will just move to other crowded waters.
“It’s always so easy to take a swipe at fishermen whether they’re commercial or recreational,” said Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association. “It’s going to have a severe socio-economic impact. We’re talking generations of fishermen — a cultural heritage.”
Since vacuum-cleaner magnate Herbert W. Hoover flew legislators over the area in a blimp to help create the original Monument in 1963, the park has changed dramatically, and not just in size. Sixteen species that live in the sanctuary are now endangered. Next to its squiggly shoreline, pocked with inlets and coves where tangles of red and black mangroves shelter baby fish, the population of Miami-Dade County grew from under a million people to more than 2.6 million in 2013.
In addition to old stilt houses, a string of keys cut across the middle of the park. A necklace of reefs marks its eastern boundary.
Over the years, the use and overfishing have scarred thousands of acres of sea grass — more than 11,000 had scars when measured in 1995. The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council found in 2003 that 71 percent of 17 different species were overfished.
In drafting the plan, park biologists considered a number of studies that documented the increasing stresses from the park’s urban neighbors. Between 1964 and 1998, the number of recreational vessels grew by more than 400 percent — and then climbed another 9 percent from 2011 to 2012. Anglers routinely haul in undersize fish: in 2008, 40 percent of red grouper, 28 percent of hogfish and 24 percent of mutton snapper — among the most popular eating fish — were undersize. An average black grouper in 2003 was 40 percent of its 1940 size.
Kelly, of the commercial fishing association, argues the studies are dated and should not be relied on for the plan.
“Gag grouper, black grouper, yellowtail, mutton and spiny lobster — every single one of those species has been assessed by the federal government in the last three years and every single one was rated good to excellent. If they have some key indicator species we need to know about, bring it on,” he said. “Biscayne National Park has said our fish within our boundaries are 20 percent smaller than they are elsewhere. I don’t know what data they are using to support that.”
But even newer studies document the decline, said Vanessa McDonough, the park’s Fishery and Wildlife biologist.
“It all tells the same story, that the fisheries are in decline,” she said.
One of the bigger changes — banning the mini lobster season in July — is also sure to draw fire from fans. But not from park officials.
“It’s a free-for-all out there, and it’s a real drain on our resources,” Carlstrom said.
The ban could also put pressure on neighbors.
“It depends on what your perspective is,” said Andy Newman, media director for the Florida Keys Tourism Council. “We understand the benefits and we understand the liability. And from a tourism-development standpoint, we never promoted the lobster mini season. It is a double-edged sword.”
The ban on spear guns will also have critics. Eloy Martinez, 47, who spent a day spearfishing on his brother’s 29-foot Wellcraft this week, complained that too many restrictions already exist.
“All you can do in the park is swim a little bit,” he said.
The bigger problem is education, said Josiel Morera, manager of the Herbert Hoover Marina at Homestead Bayfront Park, just south of Convoy Point, for the past decade.
“You have a lot more people from the islands and different parts of the world and a lot of rules are not in Spanish or Creole, so there’s a lack of knowledge,” he said. “And more people spells more boats spells more fishing.”
And sometimes people just don’t realize when they have entered park waters, he said.
“We have a fluid boundary, quite literally,” Carlstrom agreed. “Just this week we were declared one of the top seven national parks you never knew existed. And yet we’re within 50 miles of 4 million people.”
That pressure is driving the rules.
As Karl Wickstrom, founder and editor-in-chief of the Florida Sportsman, said: “Commercial fishermen can be out there day after day taking hundreds of fish, thousands sometimes. And when they do it to that extent, they’re equal to oceans of citizens.”
Oceans of citizens who tend to hit the park on weekends. Bob Branham, a flats fishing guide for more than 30 years, said the sheer number of people using the park is the biggest change he has seen.
“On a weekday, it’s still like a wilderness experience. It’s in fact more remote than any place in the Keys along the highway. Unfortunately, on the weekends it’s like being on I-95 at 5 o’clock on a weekday afternoon. It’s wall-to-wall people, and there’s a lot of fishing pressure.”
He is all for laws that protect the fishery, but he wonders how they will be enforced.
“Law enforcement is the biggest part,” he said. “Otherwise you guys are just pissing in the wind. You think you’ve done something and you haven’t done anything.”