Shrimp trawlers want to fish on Oculina Bank protected coral reef
Shrimp seek permission to trawl along federally protected Oculina Bank, which Treasure Coast conservationists say will cause lasting damage to the unique coral reef – not found nowhere else on the planet.
Federal fisheries managers will vote on the request Thursday and seek public comment on the controversial issue until 4 p.m. Wednesday.
The South Atlantic Fisheries Management Board is likely to approve the request, said John Reed, a research professor at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University in Fort Pierce, who helped discover the reef in 1975. .
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The approval would allow shrimp trawlers to pulling nets along the seabed on the eastern boundary of the Oculina Bank Area of Concern, stretching from Fort Pierce north to St. Augustine, according to the proposal.
the Alliance for the Conservation of the County of Saint Lucia is among nonprofit environmental associations lobbying against the proposal.
“I think it would be disastrous,” said President Shari Anker. “Everything is so fragile. We have a marine protected area that is supposed to be a reserve, and they are cutting back on what is already established as being protected.”
Scroll down to find out how to submit public comments.
What is Oculina Bank and why is it environmentally important?
The bank is a vast ecosystem of ivory coral, called oculina, whose mounds extend up to 100 feet high in water as deep as 300 feet.
Reed has spent decades leading the charge to protect the fragile ecosystem.
“We have an opportunity to try to protect that and let it grow back, and that won’t happen if it continues to be affected by its reduced borders,” Reed told TCPalm on Tuesday. “It’s a unique community that doesn’t exist anywhere else.”
Shrimp trawlers say they should be allowed to fish where they once did for a living. About 20 vessels, mostly based in the Titusville area, were licensed to fish for brown shrimp in the Atlantic in 2015-2019, with eight traders buying their catch, according to South Atlantic Council records.
Scroll down to read Reed’s letter to the board.
Among those with close ties to this fishing industry is Laurilee Thompson, owner of Dixie Crossroads seafood restaurant in Titusville, home of the brown shrimp, and a member of the Council’s Deepwater Shrimp Advisory Committee. of the South Atlantic.
His father, Rodney, was known as the “Daddy of the Brown Shrimp Industry” and helped introduce seafood statewide.
“We’ve been fishing there for a very, very long time,” Thompson said of the reef system. “We would like to be able to continue fishing there.”
As a clean water advocate for the Indian River Lagoon, Thompson said she also understands environmentalists’ objections to the proposal.
“I can understand the desire of the shrimp boats to be able to fish where they historically fished,” said Thompson. “But I can also understand the desire to protect this transition zone.”
How could shrimp trawling damage the Oculina Bank coral reef?
The proposed trawl area contains 29% muddy sediment on the seabed, which could be agitated and cover the reef, Reed said.
According to a University of Miami study, the bottom weights of a general shrimp trawl, which are supposed to stay open to trap shrimp, can penetrate up to 6 inches into the seabed.
Shrimp boats say they trawled parallel to the reef and claimed the sediment would float to the seabed without reaching the corals. But surface currents can be drastically different from seabed currents, Reed said.
“There is no way for the trawlers to know the current conditions on the bottom,” Reed wrote to the South Atlantic Council in a letter dated June 11.
Anker, who helped establish Fort Pierce Inlet State Park, said she had urged the 400-member alliance to vote on the council’s public comment period.
“Industry trawling (of the shrimp) creates destructive sedimentation for corals, even if it occurs next to and not on top of corals,” the alliance wrote to its members.
The reef is more threatened by polluted runoff that flows into the ocean from nearby towns than by commercial fishing, Thompson said.
“In my opinion, the South Florida sewage has a much more dangerous impact on the Oculina Reef than allowing a few shrimp boats to return to the trawl where they once fished,” she said.
A rule change is a long process
The proposal follows a Executive Order of the Trump Era reopen protected areas closed to commercial fishermen; and abolish many fishing regulations.
The “long” process of changing the rules begins with Thursday’s vote by the South Atlantic Council’s habitat committee, spokesperson Kim Iverson said.
After that, a vote is taken by the 13 board members, who oversee the conservation and management of Atlantic fish stocks from North Carolina to Key West. Members include commercial and recreational fishermen and government officials from agencies such as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
If the board approves the proposal, the National Marine Fisheries Service begins its review process.
If that agency approves, the US Department of Commerce must give its final approval, according to Iverson.
“More often than not it’s years,” Iverson said of the process.
How to submit public comments
Register to watch the webinar on register.gotowebinar.com/register/4049457759372649999.
Sign up to provide public comments to safmc.wufoo.com/forms/mm6cio00x6jk33. The number of people who sign up will determine how much time each will have to speak during the public comment period that begins at 4 p.m. Wednesday, according to the council.
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Max Chesnes is an environmental reporter for TCPalm covering issues facing the Indian River Lagoon, the St. Lucia River, and Lake Okeechobee. You can follow Max on Twitter @MaxChesnes, email him at [email protected] and call him at 772-978-2224.
Read more of Max’s stories.