NOAA and Florida Keys fishing guides collaborate to support a sustainable national marine sanctuary

By Gena Parsons

May 2018

With thousands of people each year fishing in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary waters, charter captains and guides play a critical role in protecting and managing fisheries within the sanctuary. Captains and guides have extensive knowledge of the ecosystem on which the Keys economy is built. With that in mind, they are uniquely positioned to help educate the public about sustainable fishing best practices and to give insight into how sanctuary fisheries have changed over time.

The new Blue Star Fishing Guides program recognizes charter boat captains who are committed to sustainable fishing and educating their customers about resource protection in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The voluntary training and compliance program seeks to increase fishing guides’ knowledge and, ultimately, that of their clients, to conserve the unique marine ecosystem of the Florida Keys. In the Florida Keys, approximately 20 percent of region’s recreation is dedicated to sportfishing.

view from behind of a man reeling in a tarpon
A fisherman reels in a tarpon in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Will Benson

“Nearly half a million people annually come to the Florida Keys to take advantage of the superb fishing along the reef and in the backcountry,” explains Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary superintendent Sarah Fangman. “Through this new Blue Star program, those anglers will be able to find and hire fishing guides who know the regulations and understand that they are in place to sustain the fisheries for the next generation.”

The Blue Star Fishing Guide program provides online training for captains and crew members that covers general education about the national marine sanctuary, its diverse habitats, and its fisheries. Qualifying guides receive branded materials to market their business as a sanctuary partner, plus educational materials to share with clients and customers on their vessel. Annual evaluations ensure compliance with program criteria and continued program excellence.

“I firmly believe that this program represents a major step forward for the professional charter fishing community. I fully support its creation and ongoing commitment to the sustainability of recreational fishing in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary,” says Captain Will Benson, a flats fishing guide and chair of the Sanctuary Advisory Council working group that developed the program. “I believe there will be a significant impact to the angling community, in general, as charter captains become truly effective ambassadors for the sport and the environment."

three people on a boat fishing
The Blue Star Fishing Guides program recognizes charter boat captains who are committed to sustainable fishing and educating their customers. Photo: Matt McIntosh/NOAA

Fishing guides recognized as Blue Star are required to follow legal and ethical standards as well as conservation measures such as proper fish handling. Best practices include using gear suited to the size of fish targeted and employing proper techniques and tools to revive fish if they are released. Blue Star guidelines also encourage the use of barbless circle hooks whenever practical, and limit catch to what clients want for their own use. The program also encourages respect for other anglers.

Blue Star guides are expected to continue learning through educational opportunities such as attending a Sanctuary Advisory Council meeting or community lecture. By participating in the program, guides also agree to take part in stewardship activities like marine debris cleanups, cooperative research programs, and in-kind donations to conservation groups.

a man holds a mangrove snapper
A fishing guide holds a mangrove snapper in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Matt McIntosh/NOAA

The guides program is implemented and coordinated through the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation and Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, in partnership with charter fishing operators and local and state agencies. It is modeled after the highly-successful Blue Star recognition program for dive and snorkel operators that was established in the Florida Keys in 2009.

“Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary conserves coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangroves that are essential to the blue economy,” says Kris Sarri, president and CEO of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation. “Recreational fishing charter operators are an important part of the economy in the Keys and play a critical role as environmental stewards in promoting sustainable use and conservation of marine resources and fisheries.”

If you’re planning a fishing trip to Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, consider a Blue Star guide when making your charter reservations so that you, too, can contribute to a sanctuary that will thrive and support fisheries for generations to come.

Fishing guides interested in becoming a Blue Star operator should contact the coordinator at

Gena Parsons is the communications and outreach manager for Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.