SOUTH FLORIDA — The National Parks Conservation Association is suing the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service for not protecting Biscayne National Park’s coral reef ecosystem and other marine resources.
The legal challenge accuses the federal agencies of failing to create a marine reserve and phase out commercial fishing in the park, which lies just north of Card Sound and the Ocean Reef Club.
The health of Biscayne’s marine wildlife and habitat, particularly its coral reef ecosystem, has been on the decline for decades, according to the NPCA. Local threats like overfishing and overuse, combined with stressors like coral bleaching, coral diseases like stony coral tissue loss disease and pollution, have taken a serious toll on the park, the group says.
Higher-than-normal water temperatures and stagnant winds depleted Biscayne Bay’s water of oxygen last August, leaving a wake of countless fish carcasses.
The impacts of fishing gear have also contributed to the decline of Biscayne’s coral reefs, which provide important habitat to wildlife like lobsters, reef fish and sea turtles. Today, there is less living coral reef in Biscayne than ever recorded, according to the NPCA.
“Biscayne is a national park, the underwater equivalent of Yosemite, and as a national park its current state is simply unacceptable. That’s why NPCA, along with recreational fishers, boaters, divers and park lovers from all over the country, is calling for the Park Service to create a small marine reserve area in the park and gradually phase out commercial fishing,” said Melissa Abdo, regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association.
“The Park Service already made a commitment to the public to take these specific actions. They put it in writing. Yet after all this time, they have failed to act, even as conditions worsen within the park. The Park Service is bound by law to protect our most valuable natural and cultural resources that belong to all of us. We will hold them accountable, so that current and future generations have the opportunity to experience the underwater treasures protected by America’s largest marine national park.”
Biscayne National Park, as it exists today, was created by Congress in 1980 and is the largest marine park in the park system.
In 2000, the National Park Service began work on two planning efforts: one, to develop a new general management plan for the park, and the other, in cooperation with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, to develop a fisheries management plan.
After more than 15 years of public debate, the NPS instituted a permitting system to gradually phase out commercial fishing in the park by allowing current commercial fisheries to continue but preventing new ones from becoming established. It also initiated a no-fishing marine reserve covering 6% of the park’s 173,000 acres.
“Decades ago, Biscayne National Park’s coral reefs were healthy and colorful, teeming with fish. Today’s reality is much different,” said Abdo. “Because of the Park Service’s failure to act, overfishing has led to the severe decline of many reef fish species and the degradation of Biscayne’s marine environment. This damage is leaving Biscayne’s coral reef ecosystem less resilient to climate change, coral bleaching, coral disease and pollution. Without decisive action, this decline could spell ruin for the park’s coral reef ecosystem and an integral part of South Florida’s thriving tourist economy.”
NPCA is represented by the law firm of Arnold & Porter. The case has been filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.