Announcing the 2019 Sea to Shining Sea Award

By Tracy Hajduk

November 2019

For seven years, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries has recognized outstanding achievement by presenting the Sea to Shining Sea Award for Excellence in Interpretation and Education. The award recognizes demonstrated successes in advancing ocean and climate literacy and conservation through national marine sanctuaries. It also recognizes awardees’ innovation and creative solutions for successfully enhancing the public's awareness and appreciation of the National Marine Sanctuary System.

This year, the award is presented to Nicole Uibel for Blue Star Fishing Guides.

nicole uibel
Nicole Uibel holds the Sea to Shining Sea Award. Photo: NOAA

Created in 2018, the Blue Star Fishing Guides Program recognizes guides and operators that are committed to promoting responsible and sustainable fishing practices to reduce the impact of these activities on the resources of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Blue Star operators take the extra step to educate their customers to be better environmental stewards and to interact responsibly with natural resources in the Keys. The goal is to offer a voluntary education, recognition, and endorsement program for charter fishing operators to expand their awareness and knowledge, and ultimately that of their clients, about responsible angling practices, the South Florida ecosystem, and Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Nicole Uibel, volunteer coordinator at Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, was selected for the Sea to Shining Sea award for her leadership and dedication to developing this program for the Florida Keys. To date, 14 charter operators have completed the requirements to be recognized as Blue Star operators, six more are in process, and another two dozen have shown interest in taking the training. This project showcases just one of the ways our staff works to engage the community.

The Sea to Shining Sea Award was presented in November 2019 at the National Association for Interpretation conference in Denver, Colorado, during the federal awards ceremony.

a man and a woman hold up a blue star sign
Uibel and Captain Tony Young hold up a Blue Star Fishing Guides sign. Photo: NOAA

Working closely with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council and local charter fishing operators, Uibel modeled the program after the highly successful Blue Star dive and snorkel operator program. Just as the original Blue Star program does, the new Blue Star Fishing Guides program ensures that both the operators and their guests feel connected to the reef ecosystem, and have a vested interest in its health.

Creating these partnerships in the fishing community took dedication and Uibel was helped by a local leader in the recreational fishing community, Will Benson. Benson, a long time advocate and national volunteer of the year for his work on the Blue Star program and the Sanctuary Advisory Council, knew that other members of the fishing charter community would appreciate a program that recognized them as partners in conservation.

"I firmly believe that this program represents a major step forward for the professional charter fishing community," says Benson, "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.”

“We see a lot of people anchoring on the coral in shallow reefs, fishing in areas they are not supposed to, and taking fish that are undersized or out of season. Some visitors do not know, but many simply ignore the regulations and laws that are set in place to protect the Florida Keys,” echoed Tony Young, owner of Forever Young Charter Company in Islamorada, a Blue Star fishing operator, in the award nomination. “Becoming a Blue Star Fishing Guide is not only a step towards conserving the Florida Keys, but also protects the fisheries we rely on each day for charters. It is in each operator’s best interest to go Blue Star and educate their clients on sustainable fishing practices.”

Once Uibel had the commitment of the local charter companies, she went to work crafting course modules, a training program, a website, and materials. Guides who have been recognized are expected to use gear suited to the size of fish targeted and to employ 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. Participants are expected to continue learning through educational opportunities and they agree to take part in stewardship activities like marine debris cleanups, cooperative research programs, and in-kind donations to conservation groups.

All signs indicate this program will continue to gain traction and grow. The Blue Star fishing guides have been out in the community highlighting the program and its benefits. Visitors can easily find a Blue Star operator by the logo on their website and in their business. Blue Star operators are also advertised through the Key West Chamber of Commerce visitor map. The synergy of local fishing businesses working closely with Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary continues to be highlighted by both local media and the fishing community.

Congratulations to Nicole Uibel for her excellence and dedication in enhancing ocean and climate literacy in national marine sanctuaries and enhancing public understanding of the National Marine Sanctuary System and the resources it protects.

The Blue Star Fishing Guide program was created by Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, in cooperation with NOAA Fisheries, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Keep Florida Fishing, American Sportfishing Association, Coastal Conservation Association Florida, and Bonefish and Tarpon Trust.

Tracy Hajduk is the national education coordinator at NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.