Congressional leaders ensure access to fishing area

Kellie Ralston
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
July 5, 2016

This article originally appeared in the South Florida Sun Sentinel. 

Kellie Ralston_headshotRecreational fishing crucial to Florida’s economy

Nowadays, bipartisanship within Congress is about as rare as recreational red snapper fishing in federal waters (zero days in the South Atlantic, eleven days in the Gulf of Mexico). That’s what makes it especially heartening to see Florida’s congressional leaders stepping up to ensure fishing access in one of South Florida’s most popular fishing areas, Biscayne National Park.

Sens. Bill Nelson, Democrat, and Marco Rubio, Republican, recently introduced a bill, which has already passed out of committee, to stop an unwarranted marine reserve in Biscayne National Park. In the House of Representatives, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-FL, championed bipartisan legislation to similarly address this flawed management decision. That bill passed the House last year.

Recreational fishing is part of Florida’s culture and lifestyle, providing family friendly enjoyment for more than 3 million Floridians and visitors each year. Florida has earned the reputation of the “Fishing Capital of the World” due to its tremendous fisheries resources and wise fisheries management. In order to maintain and enhance recreational fishing opportunities, our community depends on sound, science-based policies that take into account conservation needs while ensuring public access.

Marine protected areas is almost always a contentious subject in the world of fisheries management. It’s my experience there are essentially two types of MPAs: those that are based on fisheries management, and those that are based on ideology.

MPAs are unquestionably a tool in the fisheries management toolbox. In instances where traditional fisheries management approaches, such as bag limits, sizes limits and gear restrictions are unsuccessful at sustaining a healthy fish population or preventing damage to critical habitat, MPAs can serve as an important tool in the management toolbox.

MPAs do nothing to address the true challenges to our coral reefs such as temperature rise, ocean acidification, pollution or invasive species. However, the success of well-planned MPAs in rebuilding certain fish stocks in a limited number of instances has fueled a movement within parts of the environmental community to broadly promote MPAs as a panacea that will fix all of the problems affecting the marine environment.

This has led to numerous proposals, such as the Biscayne National Park marine reserve, that are based on an over-generalized assumption that “MPAs work” while ignoring the factors that led to success or failure where MPAs have previously been implemented. This type of ideological approach to fisheries management not only undermines stakeholder trust in management agencies, but also can lead to a significant decline in public participation in outdoor recreation and harm businesses and jobs that depend on outdoor recreation.

Proponents of the Biscayne Bay marine reserve often justify it by citing a marine reserve that was established in 2007 in the Dry Tortugas. However, the Dry Tortugas marine reserve covers a large area identified as an important spawning area for many species in the snapper/grouper complex. Importantly, it was developed in close coordination with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and stakeholders. The Biscayne Bay marine reserve meets none of these criteria.

For more than a decade, FWC and the recreational fishing community attempted to work in good faith with the National Park Service to find more reasonable, science-based management options that would conserve the park’s marine resources while maintaining reasonable public access. It was clear throughout the process, however, the NPS was dead set on ignoring the FWC’s science and moving forward with the marine reserve, despite not having a fisheries management basis for this approach.

Thankfully, congressional leaders throughout Florida from across the aisle have stepped up to fix this problem. Florida’s recreational fishing community and the thousands of jobs it supports are grateful to Nelson, Rubio, Ros-Lehtinen and many other congressional representatives for standing up for sound, science-based fisheries management.

Kellie Ralston, a fifth-generation Floridian, is the Florida Fisheries policies director for the American Sportfishing Association.