Scuba Divers and Spearfishermen Balk at 68 New Regulations Recommended to Protect Coral

If a proposed regulation passes, it could be illegal to spearfish while using scuba gear.
If a proposed regulation passes, it could be illegal to spearfish while using scuba gear.
Photo by King Damus via Flckr Creative Commons

Stakeholders concerned about Florida’s coral reefs have quietly spent the past several years meeting under the umbrella working group known as Our Florida Reefs (OFR). Now, there are 68 (68!!!) suggested regulations on the table that could affect what Floridians can and cannot do in, on, and under the ocean in South Florida.

Many of the proposals are controversial. If OFR has its way, scuba divers will no longer be allowed to spearfish; the masses who flock to South Florida to pilfer lobster during miniseason each July would be relegated to a mere six lobsters per person per day instead of 12; and you can forget about having a colorful parrotfish in your saltwater fish tank. Furthermore, you may be limited in where you can toss out your anchor for your next hedonistic yacht outing or yank unsuspecting fish off the sea floor —- if at all. I have your attention now, don’t I?

On Wednesday night, fishermen and divers at Our Florida Reef’s presentation at Force-E Scuba in Pompano Beach were all too ready and eager to pummel OFR representatives and scientific advisers. Members of the community asked questions and proposed alternative recommendations as well as a few colorful suggestions on where some of these proposed regulations should be creatively placed —  away from the rays of the sun, if you catch my drift. 

Meghan Balling, the Fishing, Diving, and Other Uses coordinator at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s (FDEP) Coral Reef Protection Program, says that reef systems in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, and Martin counties are suffering “death by a thousand cuts.” Yet a recent survey noted that only 48 percent of South Florida residents even know that there are any coral reefs north of the Keys. Just 48 percent? Really?

The remaining oblivious 52 percent should know that there are three parallel reef lines that run just offshore from Miami-Dade all the way up to Martin County — a length of more than 105 miles, the equivalent of nearly four days of travel if measured by rush-hour traffic on I-95. The first of those reef lines is located just a hundred yards or so off the beach in ten to 15 feet of water (three to five meters for the non-Americans). The third reef is located in deeper waters a half-mile or more offshore.

The health of those reefs has a major impact on our local economies with an estimated $5.7 billion in annual sales and income as well as about 61,000 jobs. Not too shabby for a heaping colony of brainless invertebrates. In addition to helping support the growth of various fish and crustacean species that account for about 5 million pounds of the fresh seafood that end up on Florida dinner plates, the reef also is home to 45 species of hard corals, 37 species of soft corals, and two of the world’s threatened corals, staghorn and elkhorn coral  — and no, the soft corals don’t need Viagra.

Over the past several decades, threats to the reefs have included the crushing effects of boat anchors and groundings, pollution and water-quality issues from runoff, fertilizers, pesticides, and even sewage released into the sea by local municipalities (thank you, Hallandale and Boca!), marine debris and garbage, and the sheer number of people using the reefs for fishing, diving, spearfishing, lobstering, and underwater basket weaving.

All of these “little cuts” take their toll, so OFR and its teams of Community Working Groups have taken two years to come up with some coral-hugging ideas on how to protect this important resource. Not just one or two recommendations but a whopping 68 RMAs (Recommended Management Actions) — many of which will not be popular. In fact, some are likely to be perceived as “fighting words” from various saltwater enthusiasts like scuba spearfishermen and our incoming lobster yahoos.

For example, RMA N-59 recommends that the Florida Wildlife Commission (FWC) actually outlaw spearfishing while using scuba gear. The rationale is that scuba divers tend to try to shoot the biggest fish, and apparently taking trophies is a bad idea. Never mind that studies apparently show that big fish not taken by spearfishing are just as likely to be taken by hook-and-line fishermen, so stopping spearfishing in general is pointless. But hey, let’s stick it to those out-of-shape folks who can’t hold their breath long enough to get deep enough to see a fish, let alone shoot it. It is already illegal to spearfish while using a rebreather (think scuba without the bubbles or freediving with gills) or by using a powerhead (think bullet on the end of a pole so you can knock out the really big ones).

Anthony Gualtieri of Fort Lauderdale said, "I'm all for protecting our reefs. And I think a lot of their suggestions can help. But banning spearfishing for scuba divers I don't think is the right answer. I personally prefer to hunt freediving, but taking the sport away for scuba divers isn't right." 

Bill Barnes of Pompano Beach commented, "The proposed reduction of lobster bag limits during lobster miniseason to prevent anchor damage and reef damage caused by irresponsible individuals does not relate. The income loss to FWC in license fees would eliminate potential funding for many of the programs even being recommended."

On Wednesday night, the order of the evening was to log on to OurFloridaReefs.org and submit comments and recommendations regarding any or all of the RMAs. Balling advised that, while authorities appreciated everyone’s verbal comments, the only comments that would actually reach the work groups were those submitted in writing. In other words, whining out loud isn’t going to help your cause; you have to write it down.

Advisers James Byrne of the Nature Conservancy and Kurtis Gregg of ERT Inc. and a former employee of the South Florida Water Management District both reiterated the need for anyone who has some insight or an idea that might be useful to submit it via OFR’s site. OFR will be holding a series of community meetings around South Florida between January 26 and February 17 that concerned parties should attend. Two sets of meetings are to be held each day, the first from noon to 2 p.m. and the second from 6 to 8 p.m. In Broward and Palm Beach, meetings will be held in Palm Becah Gardens on January 27, Delray on January 29, and Fort Lauderdale on February 16. 

Ana Zangroniz, awareness and appreciation coordinator at FDEP’s Coral Reef Protection Program, said, “This process has been very rewarding to watch and facilitate because it really has brought together a wide spectrum of reef users and stakeholders, all with different experiences, learning from and influencing one another to create ideas and arrive at these draft recommendations. The working groups are hopeful to have large attendance at upcoming community meetings.” I asked if she felt aware and appreciated, and apparently she does but felt that the reef might be feeling a little left out. Have you written your reef today?

Once the community meetings are completed, the Community Working Groups will reconvene to consider the additional input provided by the community. Yes, they really will read your fan mail! From there, OFR will submit its Recommended Management Actions to the appropriate government agencies. For example, RMA S-87, which proposes to ban any harvesting of reef herbivores like parrotfish and surgeonfish (no tropicals for you!) would submit their recommendation to the Florida Wildlife Commission. The FWC would then decide whether to take on the action and work through their process, which would eventually become an amendment to the Marine Life Rules and be published as fishing regulations: “Thou shalt not harvest vegetarian fish.”

For the record, the reason these vegans are important is that the nutrients in the water (AKA excess fertilizer from golf courses, sugar plantations, and you nimrods who fertilize your lawns during rainy season) have given algae a leg up. With fewer herbivores, the algae grows faster than they can eat it. As a nonmaritime example, if you water your grass, it will grow and you will have to cut it on a regular basis, especially if you have an HOA. If you fertilize your grass, it will grow more, but taking the veggie fish out of the water is like mowing your grass less frequently in spite of the extra growth — you know, like that guy down the street who needs a code enforcement ticket as an invitation to mow his yard. Did you know there’s a loophole that allows lobster fishermen to sell parrotfish that get caught in their traps to fish markets? Yup, RMA S-87 would fix that wily bit of sneakiness.

For a List of Recommended Management Actions and to comment, visit: http://ourfloridareefs.org/rmacomment

Here are some of the key proposals: 

Fishing, Diving, Boating & Other Uses/Restoration
http://ourfloridareefs.org/fishing-diving-other-uses-restoration
N-59: Ban Spearfishing on SCUBA
S-54: Apply for Florida Reef Tract to be Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site
S-86: Ban Live Mounts and Promote Proper handling and release techniques of All Shark Species
S-87: Increase Protection of Important Reef Herbivores
S-97: Reduce Bag Limit to 6 per Person per Day During Lobster Mini Season

Land-Based Sources of Pollution
http://ourfloridareefs.org/land-based-sources-of-pollution
N-68: Regulate Fertilizers and Pesticides
N-75: Offer Free Pump-Out Stations to Boaters
N-78: Reduce Ground Water Pollution from Septic/Storage Tanks
N-120: Overturn Current Legislation that Restricts Bans on Plastic Bags
S-25: Encourage the Closure of all Wastewater Outfalls by 2025
S-28: Support Everglades Flow Restoration

Maritime Industry and Coastal Construction
http://ourfloridareefs.org/maritime-industry-coastal-construction
N-113: Eliminate Lake Worth Inlet Port Expansion Project
S-1: Remove Tires and Debris from Broward County Artificial Tire Reef Projects
S-100: Support Redefining the Port of Miami Anchorage to Reduce Anchor Damage to the Reefs
S-101: Create a Required Training Program for Coastal Construction Project Contractors
S-107: Encourage Biological Monitoring of Resources Impacted by Beach ReNourishment Projects

Branon Edwards is a PADI-certified divemaster who has been scuba diving in South Florida for more than three decades. He is a real estate broker and freelance writer who lives on a sailboat in Fort Lauderdale.

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