I live in a fairly low-key, moderately populated region of the East Coast — the Golden Isles of Georgia — an hour north of Jacksonville and 90 minutes south of Savannah. We frequently joke here that most Americans don’t even know that Georgia has a coast. In many ways, we like that.
Since we don’t make a big splash on the map, few outsiders know about the national marine sanctuary off our shores — Gray’s Reef. But Gray’s Reef is one of the largest (22 square miles) near-shore, live-bottom reefs in the Southeast. As such, it’s very important to Georgia anglers who bottom-fish and those who troll for reef-loving species such as king mackerel.
But several years ago, trouble began brewing at Gray’s Reef. Federal scientists started to discuss a closed area for research in the northwest quadrant of the sanctuary. Anglers, sensitive to marine-protected-area discussions throughout this country, instantly recognized a potential threat — and they decided to do something.
A working group was formed to review options. Three members of the Coastal Conservation Association — Georgia chapter became involved in the management process, and the group announced this month that NOAA approved a final plan.
CCA-GA said that NOAA had already determined to provide an area to study differences between fished and unfished habitats, so anglers wanted a say — at least — in where the zone would lie. The original suggestion of a northwest closure would have affected most of the popular fishing areas. “The Research Area Working Group ultimately recommended to the Gray's Reef Management Committee that bottom fishing be restricted in the southernmost section of the sanctuary in order for scientific research to be conducted,” CCA-GA reported in early December.
NOAA agreed to shift the research area to an 8-square-mile area to the south but surpassed the group’s recommendation to restrict only bottom fishing, closing the area to all public use.
"It was a good thing that anglers were able to get involved in this process, otherwise the outcome might have been far more onerous on anglers," Russell Kent, vice president of CCA-GA, said in a press release. "It is easy to see how the marine-protected-area concept can be abused. There is a dangerous tendency for managers to see total closures as an easy alternative to expending the time, funds and energy to actually manage these areas for the benefit of the public. We will have to stay actively engaged on this issue."
Moral of the story: “Actively engaged” trumps “sitting on the sidelines” — especially in less-populated areas that don’t grab national headlines. If you’re not involved in local or regional fishing organizations, either find one and support it with your hands, your heart and your wallet or find ways to make a difference personally.