Congressmen Try to Undo Protections for Fish and Coral at Biscayne National Park

After 15 years of study and debate, the National Park Service last year adopted a fishing management plan that would phase out and eventually ban commercial fishing in Biscayne National Park's more than 170,000 acres and last month adopted a management plan that established a 10,500-acre marine reserve — a no-fishing zone — in an area that takes up 6 percent of the park. These moves were made so that depleted fish and coral stocks could make a comeback. While only spearfishing for lionfish would be allowed in the protected zone, boating, diving and fishing would still be allowed in the vast majority of the park.

Leave it to a few Republican Florida members of Congress to ruin a good thing. 

Today in Homestead, U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart, and Carlos Curbelo are leading a hearing for some of their fellow congressmen and -women to reconsider the creation of the reserve. Members of the House Natural Resources and Small Business Committees are attending a "field hearing" called “Restricted Access at Biscayne National Park and Implications for Fishermen, Small Businesses, the Local Economy and Environment.”

The Florida reps are crying that the park service decision is an attack on public access to the park and say that local leaders and anglers were left out of the planning. This despite that there were two dozen hearings, opportunities for public comment (90 percent of the 43,000 comments reportedly were in favor of the park), and several changes to draft plans before final versions were adopted. 

Environmentalists say it's another plot in a growing trend of private, commercial entities and pro-business politicians trying to use national parks for commercial exploitation and extraction of natural resources, rather than preservation and conservation. Such moves, they say, go against the spirit of the laws that created the parks. 

Jacki Lopez, Florida director for the Center for Biological Diversity, sounded disgusted by the political jockeying, especially by Utah Republican Rob Bishop, chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources. Said Lopez: 

“Just a few days ago, Chairman Bishop was cynically exploiting the plight of the manatee in a ludicrous attempt to block the EPA from addressing climate change. Now he’s returned to his usual routine of elevating special industry interests above our environment, our health, and our wildlife in trying to block sound measures to protect Biscayne National Park.”

Matthew Schwartz of the Florida Wildlands Association said that decisions on both of the park plans "were reached after years of rigorous scientific study on collapsing fish populations and degraded ecological conditions inside the park and the best ways to deal with these serious problems." 

Rep. Curbelo did some mathematical gymnastics to spin the numbers as a terrible thing for fishermen, writing in a statement that the protected zone "includes 37 percent of the Park’s hard bottom habitat for reef fishing." He stated that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission "opposes NPS’ plan to implement an [Marine Reserve Zone] within state waters" and asserted that "although the Park is part of a federal agency, fishing and other harvesting activities are largely governed by state law." 

Biscayne National Park Superintendent Brian Carlstrom will speak at today's hearing and told the Miami Herald that he sees it as an opportunity to educate the congressional reps. Others invited to speak include a charter boat captain, a seafood purveyor, a yacht salesman, a commercial fisherman, a fisheries director at the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, and a University of Miami professor. 

For the next ten days, the public can still submit written comments to Matt Strickler, a staffer at the U.S. House of Natural Resources Committee: [email protected]

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Deirdra Funcheon