Lloyd Miller, a 95-year-old Florida conservationist, waited patiently through the testimony of nine people at a hearing about a marine reserve zone in Biscayne National Park before he rose to his feet with the help of a cane to address three members of Congress Monday morning.
“If anyone should be able to speak at something like this, it’s me,” said Miller, who advocated for the creation of Biscayne National Monument in 1968, a precursor to today's nearly 174,000 acre-national park. “It's so important for us to save it.”
Miller was one of about 150 people who came to a joint congressional hearing in Homestead of the House Committee on Natural Resources and the House Small Business Committee to discuss a controversial portion of the National Park Service’s general management plan finalized in June — a 10,500 acre “no fishing” reserve. The joint hearing was requested by Republican U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo and included invitation-only witnesses, many saying the National Park Service’s data was outdated and that the fish population in Biscayne National Park isn’t endangered enough to warrant a reserve.
“I don’t think the fishing and the resources are as bad off as they’re making it,” said Jimbo Thomas, owner of charter fishing business Thomas Flyer. “I’d rather see the state put in rules, regulations, seasons, size limits — let them do the work.”
The National Park Service’s plan is a struggle to balance environmental protection and recreation. The no-fish zone aims to create an area that would allow big fish to proliferate and increase populations quickly and also protect the park’s coral reef. The reserve has been a hotly contested issue between commercial fisherman and conservationists, along with local authorities and the federal agency. State officials have proposed two alternatives to the plan, nearly two dozen public hearings were held and over 43,000 emails and letters were submitted, park officials have said.
“The [Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission] has been continually frustrated with the National Park Service for its unwillingness to explore alternatives to a no-fishing marine reserve zone,” Jessica McCawley, a division director of the commission said in testimony.
Although the park service has adopted the plan as final, it still must be signed by the director before it goes into effect.
Before Miller, nine others gave testimony in front of a crowd wearing shirts emblazoned with a marlin or hats that read “Let Us Fish.”
“There's clearly a disconnect here that needs to be explored,” said Utah Republican Rob Bishop, who chairs the House Committee of Natural Resources.
In calling for the hearing, Bishop had complained that the federal park service had excluded local anglers in making the decisions.
Although University of Miami fisheries scientist Jerry Ault testified that a reserve was the best way to protect the coral reef, others brought up the reserve’s negative economic impacts. Restricting the area would hurt many small charter and commercial fishing businesses that depend on the park, according to Ernie Piton of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association in Key Largo.
“We want our children and their children to enjoy good fishing,” Piton said.
Laura Reynolds, executive director of the Tropical Audubon Society, said the reserve was the “quickest and cheapest way to rebound the population” of fish.
Restricting the use of that portion of Biscayne National Park isn’t the first struggle between federal agencies aiming to protect South Florida’s parks and local groups promoting recreation, said the executive director of South Florida Wildlands Association, Matthew Schwartz.
“These conflicts are not unique here,” Schwartz said, noting other battles over restricted access in Everglades National Park and Big Cypress. “Unfortunately the [Florida Fish and and Wildlife Conservation Commission] seems to be the driving force pushing for access for motor vehicles, air boats ... access of fishing boats. They don’t accept no.”