New Rule Gives Breeding Fish a Safe Haven Off Key West

Florida officials vote to halt fishing during critical spawning months at Western Dry Rocks

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New Rule Gives Breeding Fish a Safe Haven Off Key West
School of permit
A school of permit, a popular species among anglers, swims above a shipwreck off Key Largo, Florida. A new rule will protect this and other species in an important breeding ground in the Keys.
Chris Gug Alamy Stock Photo

Giving fish space to spawn helps them thrive, and today Florida officials protected an important mating spot for numerous species near Key West.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted to halt fishing every April through July, the period when snappers, groupers, and other economically valuable species gather en masse to breed in a 1-square-mile area known as Western Dry Rocks.

Fishermen have long been drawn to the abundant fish at this well-known breeding ground about 10 miles southwest of Key West. Fish often arrive by the thousands, some having traveled many miles to take part in mating rituals that are crucial to the survival of their species. But when they are concentrated in one spot and distracted by their biological task, they are easy prey for both fishermen and sharks. According to the wildlife commission and academic research, sharks frequently feed on fish caught on anglers’ lines and on those that fishermen release, which are weakened from the struggle.

The proposal to protect Western Dry Rocks earned support from scientists, conservationists, and fishing groups, including the American Sportfishing Association, Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, International Game Fish Association, and Wild Oceans.

“This seasonal closure will protect spawning aggregations of recreational and commercially important fish, which will result in long-term benefits to fisheries in the Florida Keys,” said Jason Schratwieser, president of the International Game Fish Association. “We applaud the commission’s decision.”

Scientists say ocean currents near Western Dry Rocks move fish larvae great distances and help replenish fish populations throughout the Florida Keys and northward into South Florida waters. The new plan could help boost populations of species including mutton snapper, yellowtail snapper, groupers, and permit—some of the species most sought by anglers in the Sunshine State.    

The commission’s forward-looking decision is a win for ocean ecosystems and fishermen, because both will gain from healthy fish populations. Commissioners found a balanced solution to protect Florida’s natural resources and its fishing economy, a move that should deliver benefits for generations to come.

Holly Binns directs ocean conservation work in the Southeast for The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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Where We Work: Gulf Coast

The Gulf of Mexico is an environmental and economic powerhouse. Its 600,000 square miles are home to some of the nation’s most productive fishing grounds and oyster beds as well as deep-sea corals and the country’s largest continuous seagrass beds.