No-fishing zone no solution to coral loss

Snorkelers approach elkhorn coral in Biscayne National Park.
Snorkelers approach elkhorn coral in Biscayne National Park. National Park Service

Were Charles Dickens alive today, it’s possible that the drama surrounding the inclusion of a no-fishing zone in Biscayne National Park’s General Management Plan (GMP) could be mistaken as part of the inspiration for his great story A Tale of Two Cities.

Dickens’ famous opening sentence from that novel is: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” But the way that the National Park Service (NPS) and its activist allies talk about the no-fishing zone seems to reflect part of the rest of that opening line: “It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.”

They say that those in support of the no-fishing zone are enlightened and wise, whereas those in opposition are uninformed, or worse yet, greedy.

No-fishing-zone proponents argue Biscayne National Park is not adequately protected. But its designation by Congress in 1980 as a national park entitles the area to some of the strongest federal protections available.

Proponents also starkly describe the decision over the no-fishing zone as choosing between healthy, vibrant coral reefs or no coral reefs at all.

These arguments in favor of a no-fishing zone are oversimplified and disingenuous.

Logic alone dictates that the decision to allow or reject the creation of a no-fishing zone that proponents say will encompass “only 7 percent of park waters” will not mean the salvation or destruction of all the park’s coral reefs. In fact, the complexity of the environmental issues Biscayne actually faces will ensure that relying on a no-fishing zone as the principal means of protecting coral reef habitat will be an utter failure, with economic and environmental consequences for our community.

Putting a no-fishing zone at the forefront of Biscayne’s coral-protection strategy would seem to suggest that NPS believes fishing is the primary threat to our reefs. But scientists have determined that poor water quality and periodic extreme water temperatures are responsible for most coral losses in Biscayne over the last two decades. Furthermore, overfishing is just one of five major threats to Biscayne’s coral reefs that NPS has identified, including reduced freshwater flows into Biscayne Bay, invasive species, water quality/pollution and climate change.

Knowing this, how can NPS propose that eliminating fishing in 7 percent of park waters will vastly improve the state of park reefs?

While not likely to offer any real protections for corals, the no-fishing zone plan does paint the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, commercial fishermen and recreational anglers as opponents rather than as partners in restoring Biscayne. That’s unfortunate because Biscayne’s long-term ecological health and public support for park management both depend on strengthening and diversifying partnerships, not drawing battle lines.

Fortunately, park managers at nearby Everglades National Park grasp the importance of building public partnerships. Everglades’ GMP has gone through the same tortured process that Biscayne’s has, yet when the final plan was recently released, it was rightly praised by fishermen and environmental groups alike because it was grounded in a consensus-based plan that balanced ecological protection and public access. The plan vastly expands pole/troll zones across Florida Bay to protect vital seagrass beds from boat motors while allowing folks to enjoy fishing and boating in their public waters via dozens of new, marked access routes.

Were Dickens alive today, perhaps he would have named this story “A Tale of Two GMPs.” In Florida Bay, the plan is to support fish habitat and fishing; in Biscayne, the plan lays out a false choice between fish habitat or fishing. It’s not too late for the Park Service to develop a GMP for Biscayne that can actually deliver the conservation benefits it’s designed to provide, and do so with the support of all stakeholders in our community — the type of GMP that neighboring Everglades National Park recently proposed.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen represents Florida’s 27th District in Miami.