Office of National Marine Sanctuaries

by Matt Dozier
Office of National Marine Sanctuaries

It's before dawn in North Key Largo, Fla., and Jack Curlett is already out on the water. He guides his 18-foot skiff through the channels of Florida Bay in the ethereal early-morning light, gliding past spoonbills and egrets wading in the shallows. As the sun rises, it streaks the inky purple waters with shimmering orange and gold, spreading until the entire bay seems bathed in fire and the divide between sea and sky almost disappears.

A Passion for the Water

Curlett will spend the rest of the day fishing in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Like many recreational fishermen, he says the experience of being out on the water is just as important as catching fish. "You do it for the enjoyment, for the escape - for the thrill of seeing what's out there," he said. "It makes you feel reborn."

For Curlett, a yacht broker who has lived in the Keys for the past 26 years, fishing is a way of connecting with nature and spending time with his family and friends. On the West Coast, Eric Kett, who has been fishing and diving in and around California's Chan- nel Islands National Marine Sanctuary for more than 20 years, echoed Curlett's senti- ments. "When you're fishing with someone, it's one of the last places where you are re- ally spending time together, and you can really get to know them," Kett said.

An avid spearfisherman, Kett got hooked on the sport as a student at UC Santa Bar- bara, and has since worked as a dive instructor and charter boat captain in the area. "Fishing is about a passion for adventure," he said.

Curlett, whose father taught him to fish at age five, passed on the tradition to his son and daughter when they were young. With Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary on his doorstep, he said he is keenly aware of the importance of protecting our marine ecosystems for future generations to enjoy. "I'm a believer in marine protected areas, when science says we need them," he said.

Conservation, Confusion and Conflict

A common misconception among recreational anglers is that national marine sanctuaries are restricted, or shut off to the public. "We are surrounded by protected, preserved waters [in the Florida Keys] - but protected doesn't mean closed," Curlett clarified.

In fact, just two percent of national marine sanctuary waters is closed to any kind of recreational activity. Recreational fishing is both a popular and economically important activity in many sanctuary communities. Fishermen like Curlett, Kett and Mick Menigoz, a charter boat captain based in the San Francisco Bay Area, have all spent countless hours pursuing fish in the waters of the National Marine Sanctuary System. "I spend more than two-thirds of my time in the sanctuaries outside San Francisco Bay, mostly Gulf of the Farallones and Monterey Bay," said Menigoz, who takes parties of up to 30 people on fishing excursions in his 65-foot boat.

Despite this, the many types of marine protected areas - sanctuaries and refuges and reserves, marine parks and monuments and conservation areas - can make it hard to figure out exactly what uses are allowed where. "In general, sanctuaries don't prevent fishing, and neither do many MPAs," Kett said. "But the definitions are not always the same nationally, and that causes confusion."

Preserving Fishing for the Future

Ask Jack Curlett why he supports sanctuaries, and he will tell you that much has changed in the Florida Keys since he first started fishing there in 1985. "When I came to the Keys 26 years ago, it wasn't unusual to go out and have a great day of fishing, but you would hear people say, 'You should have seen it 25 years ago,'" Curlett said. "I find myself telling people the same thing today." He says the fish are smaller and less numerous now, which he attributes in part to better fish-finding technology.

Framed in terms of ensuring that our children and grandchildren have plenty of fish to catch, most fishermen are in favor of marine conservation. "I don't think there's a single fisherman out there who wants to hear that that fish he's catching is the last one," Kett said.

Today, Curlett said, more fishermen and fishing groups are already pushing for conservation measures like catch limits and gear restrictions. "I think people are more aware today that this resource is diminishing," he said.

Voice of the Community

One way national marine sanctuaries ensure recreational fishermen have a voice in sanctuary management is through sanctuary advisory councils. Curlett, Kett and Menigoz are all involved in their local advisory councils, each representing the interests of community stakeholders and providing input to their sanctuary superintendent.

Curlett has served on the Florida Keys Sanctuary Advisory Council since 2004, when he learned of an open seat on the council. "I wanted to do something!" he said. "This water is our resource, it's my resource."

After all, Curlett knows the value of a day out on the water in a healthy, thriving national marine sanctuary.

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