Biscayne National Park's Proposed Marine Reserve Drawing Criticism From Some Quarters

Yellow snappers are among the fish that rely on coral reefs in Biscayne National Park. Photo copyright by QT Luong, www.terragalleria.com/parks.

Biscayne National Park is a somewhat unusual national park, one located in a heavily urbanized area of south Florida and in which more than 90 percent of the actual park is under water.

It's a park where those watery realms are a rich resource for fisheries, a seascape where colorful coral reefs entice visitors to slip under the surface and marvel at the reefs and their marinelife.

But that habitat also is in danger from warming seas that can kill coral reefs, pollution, and even boating. With that in mind, when they started work on revising their general management plan Biscayne officials proposed creating a 10,522-acre "marine reserve" that would be off-limits to fishing, but open to snorkelers and divers. When you consider the role of reefs -- nurseries for some marinelife species, food sources for others, habitat for still others, and protection for shorelines -- efforts to address the health of reefs shouldn't be minimized.

Biscayne officials have been working for quite a while to strengthen their coral reefs. The Coral Nursery Club, which was organized in 1993, meets regularly in the park to work on three objectives: to rescue coral fragments resulting from inadvertent vessel groundings in park waters; to develop and maintain a supply of natural coral colonies with a diversity that reflects natural conditions in the park; and to provide a platform for community volunteers to participate and learn the intricacies of coral reef management and restoration.

Part of the club's activities focus on generating new corals by searching out reefs that have been damaged by boat groundings or some other disturbance and collecting fragments of broken corals. Those pieces then are taken to the park's "coral nursery," where they are bonded to PVC stakes and nurtured for use either for restoration projects or reef enhancement.

The "marine reserve" would take another step in reef protection in the park. But the proposal is not going over well with everyone. Some anglers would rather the park take other approaches to improve the health of the reefs and boost fisheries. And officials at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also are concerned. In a recent letter to the Miami Herald, Kenneth W. Wright, the commission's vice chairman, wrote that the plan would "severely limit access to areas of the park by the public, particularly fishermen and boaters."

From his office, Biscayne Superintendent Mark Lewis believes folks are over-reacting just a bit to the proposal. For starters, he notes that just 7 percent of the park would be encompassed by the reserve, leaving more than 150,000 acres open to fishing.

In a guest-editorial he wrote in the Miami Herald about the reserve proposal, the superintendent notes that banning fishing in those 10,000 acres would have little overall impact on fishing opportunities in and around the park.

"Most of the anglers in the Miami area appear to pass through the park and fish in deeper waters, possibly because the park contains so few fish meeting legal size limits," wrote the superintendent. "Managing America’s national parks requires a delicate balance between use and preservation. At Biscayne National Park, our management goal is to protect precious resources while offering rewarding experiences for all visitors."