MONROE COUNTY — Citing concerns about a state proposed bill that could have serious impacts to seagrass and other environmental threats in the Florida Keys, two major flats fishing guide groups are joining forces.
The Lower Keys Guides Association and the Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association have agreed to sign a joint memorandum of agreement outlining a future partnership on the multitude of issues facing the Keys’ recreational fishing guide community.
The purpose of the agreement is coordinate efforts of the LKGA, based in the Lower Keys, and FKFGA, based in the Upper Keys, on issues that impact the memberships of both organizations as well as matters pertaining to fisheries and conservation, according to the memorandum.
“Both organizations will maintain communication and provide updates to one another on pressing matters of concern,” the memorandum states. “When necessary, one organization may request assistance from the other organization. It is mutually understood and agreed by both parties that a collaboration of effort between each independent organization can help achieve goals that benefit the Florida ecosystem, fisheries, guides and the angling community as a whole.”
Capt. Andrew Tipler, president of the LKGA, called the alliance between the two groups “strength in numbers.”
“This will give us a stronger voice to effect change,” Tipler said.
“We need to think bigger picture,” said Capt. Steve Friedman, commodore of the FKFGA. “We are formalizing a relationship we already have. Our power lies not just with the membership of our two groups, but our customers and customer base.”
The associations have been tracking a bill filed by Florida Keys state Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez, R-Doral, that aims to offer environmental mitigation to developers who harm seagrass beds with their projects.
Both groups recently penned a joint letter to Rodriguez and the state House of sponsor of the bill, Rep. Toby Overdorf, R-St. Lucie, questioning the merits of the legislation and outlining how it could promote damage to seagrass, a vital habitat for various backcountry fish.
“This bill would make it easier for developers to get permits for projects that destroy seagrass in Florida,” the letter states. “It’s being co-sponsored in the House by Rep. Toby Overdorf, an environmental consultant who stands to benefit financially off of such projects. This bill would let developers buy credits sold through privately run mitigation banks — greasing the skids for approval of their projects — yet there would be no guarantee that such credits would result in thriving seagrass elsewhere. Biologists have found it’s very difficult to successfully replant seagrass, which is vulnerable to water quality, a perpetual problem in Florida. Why in the world would we make it easier to tear up the thriving seagrass we have remaining?
“Even if replanted seagrass was guaranteed to be successful (which it can’t be, according to scientists), moving it away from its native location would hurt water quality and habitat in its original location. It’s a lose-lose proposition.
The timing of the bill could not be worse, according to the letter, which notes that a record number of manatees starved to death in Florida last year after decades of seagrass loss depleted their food supply.
The bill is also opposed by Florida International University professor and research scientist Jim Fourqurean, the state’s leading expert on seagrass, and several statewide environmental groups.
“This is a perfect example of how our associations should work together. This is obviously a terrible bill for all fishermen in the Keys, and our collective voices should be heard by our politicians and our citizens,” said Capt. Will Benson, a guide who was born and raised in the Keys and now serves on the board of the Lower Keys Guides Association.
“We have been at the forefront of conservation and environmental stewardship for the last 50 years, and we see and feel what happens on the water before most citizens. We also have the most to lose when things go bad. Therefore, it is our aim to speak forcefully from a united front on many of the issues facing the Florida Keys environment.”
There are several pending environmental issues the groups have been involved in and will continue to do so, including the city of Key West’s referendum on cruise ships and the first major overhaul of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary’s regulations since its inception called the Restoration Blueprint. The sanctuary is expected to release an economic impact statement of the Restoration Blueprint later this year.
The associations also are in the planning stages of releasing an environmental report card that will grade elected officials on their efforts, according to group members.
“There is no accountability currently,” Friedman said.