- Associated Press - Sunday, June 22, 2014

BISCAYNE NATIONAL PARK, Fla. (AP) - The breadbasket of Biscayne Bay isn’t so bountiful anymore.

There are fewer fish. And the ones that remain are smaller. Shrimp trawlers have mowed rolling sea grass meadows to the quick. Sponges are almost gone. If there’s coral, it’s mostly rubble.

So Biscayne National Park is proposing drastic measures: phasing out commercial fishing in park waters, ending the beloved two-day lobster mini season and imposing a host of new restrictions that park managers hope will revive the vast, 270-square-mile underwater wilderness that once teemed with bonefish, snapper, sea turtles and hundreds of other species.

“We recognize that this is a significant change to existing conditions and any time you’re doing that, regardless of the topic, you’re going to get resistance. It’s just human,” said park superintendent Brian Carlstrom, who stressed the plan is “not something we propose to do overnight.”

In fact, the rules evolved at a glacial pace over 15 years as three different superintendents struggled to win support from the state, which manages wildlife in parts of the park, and balance the competing interests of environmental groups, anglers and commercial fishermen.

The park’s general plan, a broader blueprint that will address more-contentious matters - like whether to ban fishing entirely from some areas or weekend parties by boaters that scar flats and kill sea grass - is still in the works.

For some, the fishing restrictions are long overdue.

“We need to change the rules so the babies can grow,” Jesse Martinez, a 47-year-old Homestead truck driver, said last week as he coached his wife and son on a new kayak at Convoy Point. A lifelong fisherman and father of nine with tattoos on both mango-sized biceps and a fishing sweet spot near Mile Marker 62 on Conch Key, Martinez says he has seen the bay suffer during his lifetime.

“Twenty years from now, you won’t see no fish if you keep fishing like this,” he said.

That’s exactly the point the park service hopes to make with the new plan, which would take about a year to finalize but is drawing fire for being too restrictive.

Along with ending the mini lobster haul and making today’s commercial fleet the park’s last, changes would:

- Dramatically raise the catch size on popular fish, including some kinds of grouper and snapper, and lower the number allowed in an effort to increase fish populations by 20 percent.

- Outlaw spear guns and allow spearfishing only on tank-less, free dives to further boost the fishery.

- Establish no-trawl zones for shrimpers to restore sea grass and other bottom habitats.

- Make some reefs off-limits to lobster and crab traps to protect coral from the heavy damage caused by debris and tangled lines.

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