By: Lourdes Rodriguez, 954-577-6363 office, 954-242-8439 mobile, rodriguezl@ufl.edu

FLORIDA – Florida’s coral reef ecosystems are at a critical state of vulnerability and in need of conservation efforts.

Of much concern is the Southeast Coral Reef Ecosystem Conservation Area, also referred to as the Coral ECA, the northernmost part of Florida’s reef tract stretching from the northern boundary of Biscayne Bay National Park to the St. Lucie Inlet. The Coral ECA enjoys fewer statutory protections than the southern other parts of the reef and its conservation status is classified as “impaired” — the most critical score that can be attained — according to the latest Status Report for US Coral Reefs from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“Proximity to human population centers, coral disease, water quality issues, fishing, boating, and climate change are just some of the factors affecting the coral reef ecosystem in the ECA”, said Dr. Kai Lorenzen, Professor of Fisheries in the School of Forest, Fisheries, and Geomatics Sciences at UF.

A stakeholder process is underway to engage the fishing community, one of the main user groups in the Coral ECA, in developing recommendations for potential fisheries and environmental management actions to enhance coral reef ecosystem conservation and fishing quality. Organizers hope to engage stakeholders from southeast Florida, including recreational anglers and spear fishers, charter operators, commercial fishers targeting reef-associated species, marine life collectors, marine industry (bait and tackle shops, marinas) and their respective organizations.

As part of this process, a public meeting will be held on March 11 to inform stakeholders and the general public about the process and to garner public input. This first public meeting is scheduled from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

People interested in participating should register for this free webinar by March 11 by visiting the program website at https://www.flseagrant.org/fisheries-conservation-coral-eca/ or by visiting Eventbrite and searching for UF and DEP Coral Reef Program Stakeholder Engagement Project Public Meeting. Once registered, participants will receive a Zoom link to the online event the day before the meeting.

The process, facilitated by the University of Florida (UF), is designed to engage the fishing community in developing recommendations for potential fisheries and environmental management actions in the Coral ECA. At the heart of the process is a fishing stakeholder committee that meets regularly to develop recommendations, based on scientific information and broader stakeholder input. The process is supported by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Coral Reef Conservation Program, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Florida Sea Grant and the NOAA Coral Reef Program.

 

Proximity to human population centers, coral disease, water quality issues, fishing, boating, and climate change are just some of the factors affecting the coral reef ecosystem in the ECA

Dr. Kai Lorenzen

During the first meeting, facilitators from the UF team will lead discussions about the stakeholder project and obtain input on perceptions of reef ecosystem status and management and conservation issues and options.

“We are interested in hearing from diverse fisheries and other stakeholders about their views on the state of the coral reef ecosystem and management and conservation priorities for the Coral ECA” said Dr. Susana Hervas, the project scientist and coordinator at UF.

The expected outcomes for the meeting are to engage the wider fishing community through increasing awareness and stakeholder participation, while gaining insight into what the wider public’s thoughts, perspectives, and ideas are. These will be incorporated into future discussions and a coordinated management plan.

Participants can expect to come away from the meeting informed of the Coral ECA conservation process, acquainted with ways to keep connected, having met the committee members, having questions answered with regards to the process, and having had the opportunity to share their input on reef ecosystem status and management/conservation issues and options.

After this meeting, the committee will continue to meet and further review science and discuss potential management recommendation options. Additional public meetings will be scheduled to gain feedback and input on the steps that the committee will be taking.

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The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS brings science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents.

The Florida Sea Grant program, hosted at UF/IFAS, is a university-based program that supports research, education and Extension to conserve coastal resources and enhance economic opportunities for the people of Florida. In addition to UF/IFAS, the program is a partnership between Florida universities, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and county governments.