Study Claims National Park Service is Failing to Protect Biscayne National Park's Coral Reefs

A study produced by the non-profit Ocean Conservancy claims the National Park Service and state of Florida are failing to maintain healthy coral reefs at Biscayne National Park. NPS photo.

The National Park Organic Act of 1916 directed the fledging National Park Service to, more than anything else, protect the resources of the growing National Park System.

At Biscayne National Park, though, it seems the agency is failing to do just that. Overly permissive recreational and fishing policies endorsed by the Park Service have brought the park's unique coral reefs to a state of "imminent" collapse, according to findings recently published by the Ocean Conservancy.

"Biscayne National Park once had some of the most spectacular coral reefs in Florida. The native communities they support desperately need our immediate action," says David White, director of Ocean conservancy’s Southeastern regional office in St. Petersburg, Florida.

"Science shows that the hands-off approach that Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the National Park Service have taken over the years is undermining efforts to restore vital and fragile reef ecosystems in Biscayne National Park. How much longer will they stand by and do nothing to protect these resources?"

According to the conservancy, the Park Service at Biscayne appears to be ignoring its stated General Management Plan intention to "sustain a composition of native marine populations similar to that which existed prior to fishing pressures." Too, the group maintains that the Park Service has turned its managerial head on its own 2006 Management Policies, which espouse a guiding philosophy that the agency "pass on to future generations natural, cultural, and physical resources that meet desired conditions better than they do today..."

In reaching its conclusions, the report (attached below) cites fisheries data produced for the Park Service in 2001 that showed the fisheries were not healthy when compared to historic standards. Here's what that study, prepared by the University of Miami, found and which was published in 2001:

* For all harvested species analyzed, the average sized fish for the last 25 years has remained relatively constant and is very close to minimum harvest sizes, not natural historical population size absent fishing pressure. For example, the average size of black grouper is now 40% of what it was in 1940 and the spawning stock is now less than 5% of its historical (unfished) maximum;

* 77% of the 35 individual stocks that could be analyzed are overfished, according to federal definitions (13 of 16 grouper species, 11 of 13 snapper species, barracuda, and 2 of 5 grunt species);

* Stock biomass is critically low for most of the key species in the recreational fishery. Some stocks appear to have been chronically over-fished since at least the late 1970s;

* Exceptionally high and sustained exploitation pressures have precipitated “serial overfishing” of key resources;

* The recreational fishing fleet grew 444% from 1964 to 1998, and the relative “fishing power” of each vessel has quadrupled with depth indicators, fish-finders, global positioning systems, and other technological innovations (i.e., four times as many boats with four times the fishing power equals fishing pressure 16 times what it was in 1964);

* A large proportion of the fish observed during BNP creel surveys are smaller than the legal minimum size limit. This proportion is an astounding 70% for yellowtail and mutton snapper; • 13 of 35 species analyzed have their legal minimum size set lower than the minimum size at sexual maturity.11 (i.e., the fish are not yet of reproductive size before being caught.)

More so, this study concluded that "inadequate enforcement ... and the extremely poor status of reef fish resources signals imminent resource collapse."

Oddly, the Park Service, while acknowledging the problems at Biscayne, doesn't seem in a rush to change its management policies in the park, the study says. Indeed, it seems to be stricken by that affliction referred to as "paralysis by analysis."

Here's what the conservancy found in Biscayne's Synopsis: Site Characterization for Biscayne National Park: Assessment of Fisheries Resources and Habitats, which was published six years ago, just a year after the aforementioned fisheries report:

[The NPS] is concerned about the condition of Biscayne's marine and fishery resources. However, any new management strategies proposed for BNP will require precise estimates of resource distribution and status prior to implementation. The data must provide a concise and unambiguous baseline estimation of the park resource status, provide critical inputs for models used to forecast effects of any regulatory or policy change, and enable design of an efficient sampling program to monitor future performance of any given management actions.

"Not only does this NPS position appear to be diametrically opposed to the 'precautionary principle' (contained within the Management Policies), but also it directly violates NPS management policies, which require resource managers to 'take appropriate action ... to eliminate the impairment. The action must eliminate the impairment as soon as reasonably possible, taking into consideration the nature, duration, magnitude, and other characteristics of the impacts on park resources and values,'" writes the conservancy.

In its conclusions, the conservancy calls on the Park Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to "conduct a series of conferences and workshops to disclose to the public the true status of marine resources in BNP, and what the options are for future management, including the costs and benefits of marine zoning and ecosystem-based management."

"The NPS, in furtherance of their own federal mandates, in accord with other laws, and in light of overwhelming public and scientific support, must develop a new range of alternatives for both the GMP and the FMP for the future management of BNP. These alternatives must include consideration of a system of no-take marine ecological reserves or Research Natural Areas of varying size and configurations spanning an appropriate spectrum of choices for inclusion in the proposed draft GMP and FMP in order to protect important marine resources, implement ecosystem-based management, and preserve portions of our ocean environment as whole, functioning and unimpaired communities within BNP."

The conservancy's report is only the latest drawing attention to the poor health of Biscayne's coral reefs and their fisheries. As the Traveler pointed out last month, the National Parks Conservation Association four years ago placed Biscayne on its annual list of the Ten Most Endangered National Parks.

At the park, the NPCA pointed out, “Important fish and coral populations are threatened by overfishing, destructive use, and pollution [and] sensitive coastline slated for wetlands restoration is being developed, impeding the restoration of the fresh water flows necessary to restore the estuary.”

A more recent (2006) NPCA assessment of Biscayne gave the park a score of just 58 out of 100 (“poor”) for natural resources condition and only 48 for cultural resources. The full 44-page State of Biscayne National Park report can be seen at this site.

Comments

You see this beautiful marine sanctuary, a splendor of magnificent beauty slowly dying at are doorsteps. Yet, the Bush & Cheney administration wants to drill off the coast of Florida and California for more oil without a clue how precious our ocean resources are. Such callus disregard for the ultimate protection for Biscayne National Park, is another classic example of blunders and mismanagement by NPS, that is guided and designed by the Bush administration to do just that...FAIL!

Painful, but necessary; closure of the park. Re-open as a wildlife sanctuary.