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A Florida Fringe Benefit

a school of fish swimming in front of a coral reef
photo by Matt Kieffer

One of the many fringe benefits of living in South Florida is that our coastline is fringed by shallow coral reefs, making us the only residents of the contiguous United States to be so fortunate.

Our reefs offer visitors and local residents alike easy access to all sorts of aquatic recreation. These include viewing the diverse marine life while snorkeling or diving, along with a variety of state-regulated fishing and lobstering opportunities.

Yet a community working group, called “Our Florida Reefs,” has recently revived a debate over whether fishing should be allowed in some or all of the Florida reef area, including Biscayne National Park south of Miami. Suggestions to curtail fishing ranged from scattered no-fishing zones to declaring the entire reef tract, which extends north from the park up to Palm Beach County, a marine sanctuary. Another working group in neighboring counties has held similar discussions.

Our Florida Reefs and those with a similar viewpoint argue that overfishing is a major factor in damaging the reefs and the wildlife that inhabit them. But this proposition is far from accepted fact.

Part of the controversy in Biscayne National Park stems from the fact that fishing there is managed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The state commissioners, who are appointed by the governor, see a fishing ban as a last resort and are unwilling to go that far, at least right now. While the commission officially supports the National Park Service goal of increasing the population and size of its wildlife by 20 percent, the FWC wants to try less restrictive measures first.

The World Wildlife Fund lists overfishing as only one of seven major threats to coral reefs, and cites species imbalances as the main issue - a problem to which other factors can also contribute, such as the introduction of invasive species like the Pacific lionfish, which is now considered a major threat to Florida fisheries. Other threats to reef systems that do as much damage as fishing, or more, include pollution and careless navigation and anchoring. Divers and snorkelers may contribute to the problem as well, as human handling can be destructive to coral in its own right. Any responsible diver knows that corals should be seen and not touched.

All of this argues for careful fisheries management. Both in the park and beyond, it is clear that those responsible for the coral reefs and the creatures that live there need to take care to act as responsible stewards. What it does not argue for, however, is an outright fishing ban.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, expressed concern after the park’s managers released a new fishery management plan calling for substantial restrictions on popular fishing and trapping activities in the park. In a statement, she said, “There is certainly a balance that needs to be made between protecting our ecosystem and using it - sadly this plan does not seem to lay out a reasonable compromise that meets that goal.” The park’s managers still need to secure the FWC’s cooperation, and several meetings have opened discussion to the public. A final decision is expected in early 2015.

I have a strong suspicion that parties who don’t fish are latching onto a popular cause, that of coral reef protection, as a vehicle to carry a broader anti-fishing agenda. Divers who think they will see more of the pretty tropical fish they like to watch, and nondivers who just generally don’t think fish or other animals should be harvested at all, may be inclined to use the fate of the corals to achieve their ends.

Like those who oppose hunting, however, they may not realize that their efforts to protect individual animals may harm species as a whole. Hunters of birds and mammals have contributed greatly, through taxes and license fees, to the rebounding populations of many game and nongame species across North America. And much of the maritime conservation community consists of people who have fished for generations, and who want to pass that activity on to those who will follow us.

It is shortsighted and counterproductive to ban fishing or hunting just because some people who don’t fish or hunt cannot understand those who do. Efforts to foster the health of Florida’s coral reefs would be better served by taking a broader view of the problem and a more balanced approach to possible solutions.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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