BISCAYNE NATIONAL PARK, Fla. – One recent morning at Biscayne National Park, a biologist in scuba gear hovered near a reef, a waterproof clipboard and pencil at the ready to record fish swimming into view. Her pencil rarely moved. There just weren't that many fish to count.
That kind of lackluster reef experience is partly why the National Park Service wants to phase out commercial fishing in the park, which is almost entirely comprised of the bay and reefs between downtown Miami, a waterfront nuclear power plant south of the city and the Gulf Stream. Ninety-five percent of the 172,000-acre park is under water, and its primary appeal to visitors is the opportunity to encounter marine life through snorkeling, diving or recreational fishing and boating.
Officials say ending commercial fishing there will improve the numbers and sizes of snappers, groupers, wahoo, mackerel and hogfish.
"Right now it's pretty rare to see a large grouper and it's very exciting because they're so uncommon, but in reality they should be present on the reefs all the time," said park biologist Vanessa McDonough.
But critics say federal officials are punishing fishermen for polluted runoff from the land that reduces water quality. They say closing off the park would devastate South Florida's commercial fishing industry, putting people out of work and putting more pressure on fisheries elsewhere.
"Do we need regulations for fishing? Yes, but that's not the problem. The problem is the water quality and if we would deal with that, we'd have more fish," said Tom Hill, a member of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association who has helped run his family's Key Largo Fisheries Inc. since the 1970s.
The Biscayne fishery management plan, proposed in May, has been a decade in the making. Park officials stress that commercial fishermen helped develop the recommendations. Current commercial fishing permit holders would be allowed to continue harvesting in the park until they choose not to, and then their permits would expire. No new commercial fishing permits would be issued.
According to state figures, last year 74 commercial fishing entities caught nearly 44 tons of spiny lobster, blue crab, shrimp and yellowtail snapper and other species within the park. Since 2008, catches for those fish averaged about 55 tons.
"The park has been overfished for a long time," said the park's superintendent, Brian Carlstrom.
Fisheries have declined throughout the Southeast, but in areas with less fishing pressure such as the remote Dry Tortugas National Park west of Key West, the fish are bigger and have larger populations, McDonough said.
"We're hoping that by improving our fisheries, people that visit the reefs can have that spectacular experience every time, not one out of 10 times," she said.
The park service says half a million Biscayne visitors last year spent over $29 million locally, sustaining 374 jobs.
Critics of the proposal insist there are plenty of fish in the sea. On one recent afternoon, men in rubber boots dropped basket after basket of fish onto the slick floor of Key Largo Fisheries, each filled with fresh yellowtail snapper caught off the Keys, the yellow-green stripe running the length of their bodies contrasting brightly with the plastic baskets.
The critics say the proposal only adds to the bureaucracy governing the marine preserves, parks and sanctuaries between Miami and Key West.
"It's sort of like the librarian who likes the books on the shelves very neat and tidy and resents it when a kid comes to check out a book because then the shelves won't be as neat and tidy. That's the kind of attitude at the National Park Service about using our parks," said Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, whose district includes the park.
Generally, the park service prohibits commercial fishing unless it was written into legislation establishing a particular park, said Cliff McCreedy, a park service marine resource management specialist.
Biscayne isn't the only national park re-evaluating commercial fishing. Cape Canaveral National Seashore officials say commercial fishing will end in 2018 in waters the seashore shares with a federal wildlife refuge.
Similar proposals at other national parks have resulted in lengthy litigation.
A federal appeals court in 1985 upheld a prohibition on commercial fishing in Everglades National Park, six years after the park service proposed it.
After a decade of debate through the 1990s, commercial fishing was authorized for three fish species only in the outer waters of Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska.
Associated Press reporter Tony Winton contributed to this report.
Follow Jennifer Kay on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jnkay.