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Should Biscayne National Park Limit Fishing To Save Coral Reefs?

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Biscayne National Park isn't just one of South Florida's crown natural jewels, its pristine waters are also a favorite of fisherman around the world. But decades of pollution and overfishing have wreaked havoc on the park's reef fish and coral habitats.

Now the park is proposing a drastic change to fix the problem -- banning all fishing in one section of the park. It's an idea that's stirred fervent opposition from fishing groups, but park officials say it's still on the table.

A meeting tonight at the Newman Alumni Center in Coral Gables will give the public a chance to discuss three options put forth by the park aimed at protecting precious habitat and marine life -- including a contentious plan to limit fisherman's access.

"The primary issue that that we'll be discussing is a proposal for coral reef protection within the park," Caroline McLaughlin, of the National Parks Conservation Association, tells Riptide. "It's a very serious problem."

The idea dates to late 2011, McLaughlin says, when park officials came up with a proposal, based on scientific evidence, to protect the health of the park by creating a 10,000-acre marine reserve zone at the park's eastern edge. Inside the zone, which would include only seven percent of the park's water, all fishing and anchoring would be prohibited, although swimming and boating would still be allowed.

But after officials unveiled the plan, McLaughlin said, fishing groups and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission pushed back hard. Late last year, the park proposed two alternatives: a plan that would allow fishing in the zone with a limited number of permits, and one that would ban fishing from the zone from June-September but allow it during the rest of the year.

But McLaughlin was clear about which plan was best for marine life: "We are hoping," she said, "that given the status of the resources and given that this is a national park, that the park service will select a marine reserve."

The meeting, one of several throughout the year, begins tonight at 6 p.m. McLaughlin said a final decision will likely be reached in 2015.

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