Sep 23, 2023

Florida rock shrimp trawlers hope to fish near Oculina Bank coral reef

Federal fisheries managers decided Friday to wait until September to discuss whether to allow Florida rock shrimpers to trawl alongside the protected Oculina Bank coral reef.

The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council's habitat committee said it needs more time to consider whether the rock shrimp industry should be allowed to fish once again along the deep-water reef that stretches 150 miles from Fort Pierce to St. Augustine.

The vote is one of many steps in a lengthy process that began several years ago and could be coming to a close soon, according to council spokesperson Kim Iverson.

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The "promise" to work with shrimpers to reopen the reef to fishing came from now-retired NOAA Fisheries Southeast Region Director Roy Crabtree as early as 2012, according to Jessica McCawley, a council member and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's director of the Marine Fisheries Management division.

The council's 13 members, who will meet again Sept. 13-17, include commercial and recreational anglers and government officials from each state fishery agency between Florida and North Carolina.

If the proposal gets the council's thumbs up, then it must be approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce.

In 1984, the deep-water Oculina Bank Habitat Area of Particular Concern became the world's first sanctuary of its kind.

The oculina reef — found nowhere else on this planet — stretches roughly 300 square miles, but researchers in 2011 discovered another 300 square miles that remain unprotected.

The coral grows about a half-inch a year and can stretch 100 feet tall in water as deep as 300 feet. The mounds can be as large as a Volkswagen and are older than 100 years. The reef is home to:

The proposed trawling area contains 29% muddy sediment on the seafloor, which could be stirred up and blanket the reef, said John Reed, a research professor at Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce who helped discover the reef in 1975.

Weights on the bottom of a net, which are meant to stay open to entrap shrimp, can penetrate nearly 6 inches into the seafloor, according to University of Miami research.

Shrimpers say sand would sink to the seafloor as they trawl parallel to the reef, but surface currents can be drastically different than seafloor currents, Reed said.

"There's no way the trawlers can know the current conditions on the bottom," Reed wrote to the South Atlantic council in a letter dated June 11.

In Florida, there are 26 rock shrimp permit-holders, but only 19 actively fished for rock shrimp from 2015-19, selling to eight seafood dealers. They're from the:

Before the area was closed to fishing, shrimpers trawled along the east side of the existing boundary. Rock shrimping in that area accounted for 1.76% of the industry's total haul from 2013-14, according to South Atlantic council records.

Under the proposal to allow fishing along the reef, trawlers would drag nets along the seafloor in an area measuring about 20-30 square miles roughly 16 miles offshore of St. Lucie, Indian River and Brevard counties.

Marine biologists say that can rake the fragile ivory tree coral or blanket it in stirred-up sediment. Even the smallest grains of sand can bury polyps, reduce sunlight and spread bacteria, according to council records.

Dredging operations can stir up sand particles in the water column and send them floating as far as a half-mile away and, in extreme cases, affect water quality up to 12 miles away, according to council records.

Allowing fishing in the area would chip away at 45 years of protections:

All 35 people who submitted public comment on the issue during the council's June meeting opposed it. The Conservation Alliance of St. Lucie County is among the environmental nonprofits lobbying against the proposal.

"I think it would be disastrous," said President Shari Anker. "Everything is so fragile. We have a marine protected area that's supposed to be a preserve, and they're chipping away at what is already established as protected."

Lobbying for the reef's protection has been Reed's life's work.

"We have the opportunity to try to protect this and let it grow back, and it won't happen if it keeps getting impacted by chopping down its borders," he said this week.

Vero Beach recreational angler and conservationist Judy Orcutt was another opponent.

"This reef is extremely important to nursery fish," she wrote. "With the demise of so many reef systems throughout the world, it is extremely important to set aside areas that are off-limits to destructive fishing practices."

Read all the public comments at Read the council's rule change document at

The proposal comes on the heels of a Trump-era executive order to reopen protected areas closed to commercial fishing and remove many fishing regulations.

Shrimpers say they need access for their livelihoods.

Industry leader Laurilee Thompson said she sees both sides of the issue. She owns Dixie Crossroads, a seafood restaurant in Titusville — "home of the rock shrimp" — and is an Indian River Lagoon clean-water advocate and member of the South Atlantic council's deepwater shrimp advisory panel.

"We fished there for a long, long time. We'd like to be able to continue to fish there," said Thompson, whose father, Rodney, was known as the "Daddy of the rock shrimp industry." He helped introduce the seafood across the state.

"I can understand the shrimpers' desire to be able to fish where they historically had fished," she said. "But I can also understand the desire to protect that transitional area."

Rock shrimp are known for their unique, strong flavor and thick outer shells that make them difficult to peel. The shell must be split down the middle to get at the meat.

Rock shrimp costs up to $29 a pound, cleaned and split, according to Wild Ocean Seafood in Titusville.

TCPalm outdoors columnist Ed Killer contributed to this article.

Max Chesnes is a TCPalm environment reporter covering issues facing the Indian River Lagoon, St. Lucie River and Lake Okeechobee. You can keep up with Max on Twitter @MaxChesnes, email him at [email protected] and give him a call at 772-978-2224.

Lophelia reefs: Reef mapping: Eve Samples: East Coast: West Coast: Panhandle: 1975: 1984: 1994: 2000: