Florida senators move to undo Biscayne National Park preserve

A bill proposed by Florida Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio would undo a plan to create a 10,500-acre preserve in the 225-square-mile park.
A bill proposed by Florida Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio would undo a plan to create a 10,500-acre preserve in the 225-square-mile park. Biscayne National Park

A marine preserve in Biscayne National Park — a key piece of a new management plan 15 years in the making and designed to protect Florida’s dwindling reef tract — may be derailed by a new bill proposed by Florida Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio.

The bill, proposed Friday and fast-tracked through a committee hearing, would undo the preserve and require the National Park Service to consult with Florida wildlife managers, who opposed the preserve.

“This is a reasonable bill that will ensure the park consults with the state and uses the best available science moving forward,” Nelson said.

Rubio called the bill, dubbed the Access to Sportsfishing Act of 2016, a “model to address the proposed closure.”

But environmentalists say the rare move by Congress sets a dangerous precedent “that would block the National Park Service from doing its legal authority to protect America’s national park,” said Caroline McLaughlin, Biscayne program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.

Approved last year, the park plan underwent more than a dozen public hearings and received more than 43,000 comments. Ninety percent of those favored the preserve as a way of protecting the state’s struggling reefs, the nation’s only shallow inland tract. At 10,500 acres, the preserve would cover a tiny fraction of the vast 225-square mile park and only a third of the park’s reef tract.

Under the plan, fishing in the preserve for all but invasive lionfish would be banned but not other activities, including diving and snorkeling. Mooring buoys for boaters will also be added under the plan.

After state officials objected, the park service spent two years developing two additional alternative plans, which the public and scientists opposed.

Environmentalists and park officials pushed hard for the preserve after decades of heavy boat traffic, anchor scars and over-fishing crippled the park’s six reefs. They based their decision partly on the success of a similar preserve in the Dry Tortugas, a 151-mile area south of Key West. About 10 years after its creation, biologists found that grouper and snapper, critical inhabitants of a healthy reef, had increased not only in number but size.

The Biscayne Bay preserve would also play a part in a growing network of preserves intended to restore the region’s threatened fish populations, where 17 different species are down 70 percent.

The preserve was opposed by the sportfishing industry and South Florida House Republicans, who proposed a similar bill preventing the park service from closing waters to fishing at any national park. Rubio introduced a companion bill in April. The bill the committee approved on Wednesday is more narrowly focused on Biscayne National Park alone.

On Wednesday, National Marine Manufacturers Association president Thom Dammrich said the unusual congressional move was needed to “prevent this unwarranted marine reserve from going into effect.”

But McLaughlin said taking the unusual step to undo a management plan would thwart efforts to restore the “aquatic equivalent to Yellowstone National Park.”