Calling it “an important step for the health of the Florida Keys reef system,” the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) announced Friday that they will create a four-month fishing closure of the Western Dry Rocks.
The area is a key spawning ground for a number of iconic reef fish. The seasonal protections, which would prohibit fishing in the area from April through July, would benefit popular fish species that use the Western Dry Rocks, such as permit, mutton snapper, yellowtail snapper and grey snapper.
Last December, a coalition of environmental nonprofits, including Environment Florida, the National Wildlife Federation, the Marine Conservation Institute, and the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) and Audubon Florida, sent a joint letter to the FWC commissioners requesting a year-round closure of the Western Dry Rocks with a minimum of a seven-month seasonal closure. The purpose was to ensure that protections would encompass the peak spawning months for a majority of these highly prized fish species.
In January, the FWC hosted virtual workshops and accepted public comments on a proposed rule to restrict fishing in WDR for two-months of the spawning season. During this public process, the FWC heard from more than 100 citizens, the majority of whom supported protecting the spawning aggregations for longer periods of time: 4, 7, or even 12 months. Fishing groups, including the Bone Fish and Tarpon Trust, International Game Fish Association, Lower Keys Guides Association, Keep America Fishing and Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, support effective conservation measures like seasonal closures at Western Dry Rocks in the Florida Keys sanctuary.
Jessica Bibza, a senior specialist for wildlife policy at the National Wildlife Federation, weighed in on the closure.
“We are heartened to see that after examining the science and listening to the overwhelming public support, the FWC has decided to protect Florida’s fisheries by creating a four-month closure of the Western Dry Rocks. While action over 7- or 12-months is needed to fully protect the spawning aggregations, a four-month closure of the Western Dry Rocks is a step in the right direction for the future of the Florida Keys reef system. Today’s announcement shows that the FWC commissioners take their role as stewards seriously and that they are open to taking preventative action to preserve one of Florida’s most unique and valuable ecosystems,” said Bibza.
“As Floridians, we know the health of our marine ecosystems is integral to the well-being of our communities. When we think of the Florida Keys reefs, we think of vibrant underwater worlds, teeming with tropical fish and colorful corals. Protected areas like Western Dry Rocks will preserve what makes the Keys so special,” said Jenna Stevens, the state director of Environment Florida Research and Policy Center. “FWC commissioners heard from fishing captains, environmental advocates, and concerned residents alike who were all supportive of longer-term protections for the Western Dry Rocks. We are hopeful that with continued public support, the FWC will further increase safeguards for the Western Dry Rocks and in other key habitats in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.”
Dr. Melissa Abdo, the Sun Coast regional director for NPCA, also weighed in.
“The science is solid on this issue: closing marine areas to fishing allows them to begin recovery. All Floridians deserve a chance to experience the wonders of the coral reefs and their colorful marine wildlife, which are some of the most visually stunning features of the Sunshine State. That’s why there is broad public support for a longer closure to give this amazing ecosystem time to recover. While the four-month seasonal closure is certainly better than no closure at all, we hope that the decision-makers charged with protecting Florida’s iconic coral reefs will take bold and well-supported action to extend the seasonal closure further in the future,” said Abdo.