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FLORIDA KEYS // PARADISE DIVIDED

Rules take a vacation here in the Conch Republic, home of freedom-loving lobster trappers, treasure hunters, reef divers, and countless others who make their living by the sea.

Neckties are taboo, shoes optional. Sunset is a daily excuse to celebrate. Downtown often resembles one giant cocktail party.

Yet lately there has been an uproar in paradise.

The trouble started with the water. A killing layer of algae spread across the bay above the Florida Keys. The Caribbean blue sea turned murky. Coral was dying in the world's third largest reef.

The cause? Nutrients streaming down from vast Everglades farms, maybe. Or stormwater runoff from millions of tourists cramming two lanes of U.S. 1. Or untreated waste flowing from thousands of shoddy septic tanks into porous limestone islands.

Enter the federal government with its button-down brand of problem solving, formulated in a three-volume draft plan thicker than the Miami yellow pages.

Its solution: Regulate the whole archipelago, from Key Largo down to the Dry Tortugas, as a marine sanctuary managed by the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration.

Its plan: Give NOAA power to stop anything deemed dangerous to the Keys. Create no-fishing zones over 150 square miles of ocean. Add no-wake zones. Fine people who touch coral or damage seagrass. Require permits to look for treasure in shipwrecks. Suggest water treatment systems that might cost $500-million.

Some of the Conchs, to put it mildly, were not pleased.

Alison Fahrer was among the first to feel their wrath. She served on a local advisory council that helped shape the government plan and called meetings to gather input. She got input. Somebody went bowling with a coconut and conked her in the leg.

The council chairman was hanged in effigy. Another member found his tires slashed.

Ellie Crane also got an earful. She went to a raucous hearing in Key West recently to endorse the sanctuary plan for her Unitarian Universalist church. When she tried to speak of saving the coral reef for her grandchildren, a bunch of guys in the back booed. They also booed a teenage girl who favored the plan.

"Marjory Stoneman Douglas would have been booed that night," said Bill Becker, news director at U.S. 1 Radio. "It's really embarrassing for the Keys."

Fear lay not far behind the boos _ the fear of locals who see their livelihoods threatened by a federal plan to protect marine life.

"This community has been split in half right now. There's a lot of animosity, a lot of ill will," said John Sanchez, executive director of Monroe County Commercial Fishermen Inc.

"I can't say I blame them," he added, "if they don't have any other recourse. And they don't think anybody's listening to them."

Livelihood at risk

Jimmy Pearce steers a weathered 34-foot fishing boat, one hand on the wheel, the other on a Bud. Ahead lies a sea bobbing with lobster trap markers.

He has been lowering lobster traps here for 30 years. At a glance, he can identify the owner of any trap in these waters by its color-coded marker.

His are blue and white. He has 1,200 traps, and "about 40 to 50 percent of mine are in this," he says with a sweep of the hand.

"This" is one of three large "replenishment" zones in the sanctuary plan where no fishing would be allowed. Fishing also would be banned in 19 smaller "sanctuary preservation areas" around coral reefs.

Congress created the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary five years ago, after three ships rammed the reefs. To many Monroe County fishermen, it sounded like a good idea. The reefs would be shielded from oil drilling and Atlantic ship traffic, and a comprehensive sanctuary management plan would be written.

They didn't expect that plan to produce no-fishing zones in the Keys.

Altogether, these zones cover just 6 percent of the sanctuary's 2,800 square miles.

But that is no consolation to Pearce, a 45-year-old fisherman who left school in the eighth grade and followed his dad to sea. His field of study ever since has been a patch of ocean now marked "replenishment" in a federal plan.

It is heavy work, tossing 90-pound traps around, but rewarding. The crawfish Pearce caught as a teenager are called Florida spiny lobsters now. They fetch $4 a pound at the dock. When the season opens in August, Pearce finds as many as 20 lobsters lured to a single trap by a smelly piece of cowhide. Even now, two months into the season, he and a helper can haul in $1,000 worth of lobster in one day.

How, he wonders, can a federal agency come to these waters and declare them off-limits to licensed lobstermen who have fished here for a lifetime?

"It'll be impossible for us," he says. "Put us out of business."

At the Stock Island Lobster Co., where Pearce and 120 other lobstermen sell their catch, four pickup trucks are parked beside the docks. Each has the same defiant sign mounted on its cab: Say No to NOAA.

Peter Bacle, the company owner, thinks 6 percent of the sanctuary will be just the first federal bite into these rich fishing grounds.

"If this plan goes into effect, our days are numbered here," he predicts.

Treasured no more

People who salvage buried treasure from ships wrecked on the reef suspect the sanctuary plan will put them out of business altogether.

"Their excuse for taking over shipwrecks, and the treasure, is we might be harming the environment," Mel Fisher says.

Fisher is a famous man in Key West. People stop him on the street to shake his hand. Passers-by call out "Hi, Mel," to the treasure hunter who led the fabulously successful search for the Atocha, a Spanish galleon that went down in a 1622 hurricane with a $400-million hoard of emeralds, gold, silver and jewels aboard.

In a downtown cafe, Fisher is surrounded by people who admire the gold doubloon dangling over his plaid shirt. From a pants pocket he produces another emblem of the riches lying offshore _ a heavy old Spanish chain, solid gold. "Wanta adopt me?" the cashier coos.

Fisher, who calls himself King of the Conch Republic in his anti-government leaflets, doesn't like what the sanctuary plan says about this kingdom. It refers to shipwrecks as "submerged cultural resources," and the government as a public trustee with a claim to items of historic value.

"We're going to spend millions and millions of dollars, and endanger people's lives, and spend years looking for it _ and give it all to you?" Fisher asks.

The 16-year search for the Atocha took the life of one of Fisher's sons and was followed by years of litigation with the federal government over ownership of the riches.

Recently Fisher was in federal court again, this time as a defendant accused of dredging beside a coral reef and killing sea grass in a treasure hunt. Fisher uses a propeller-powered device called a mailbox to blow away thick sediment deposits.

"We dusted away all the toxic silt," to the marine environment's benefit, Fisher says.

Fisher is fighting back against the people who took him to court. From his Key West gift shop, where a nice silver coin from the Atocha fetches $2,000, he is waging a campaign to abolish NOAA, its parent U.S. Department of Commerce _ and all the marine sanctuaries in the United States.

"I know divers in California and other places that were treated miserably. Lost their jobs," he says. "Put out of business, because of the marine sanctuaries."

In praise of plan

While fishermen, treasure hunters and the Key West Chamber of Commerce have denounced the sanctuary plan, marine scientists, environmentalists and reef diving businesses are lining up to defend it.

"The water quality near shore is abominable in Key West," said John Ogden, an oceanographer and the advisory council member whose tires were slashed. "I look at those guys in the Chamber of Commerce . . . this sanctuary plan is going to make them more prosperous than ever. This attitude is just really strange."

In a modest office building on U.S. 1, research biologist Curtis Kruer is laboring _ barefoot _ on a set of habitat maps for the Keys. The style here is casual, but the work is serious.

For 18 years, Kruer has documented the ecological underside of life in the Keys. He has seen it all: 55-gallon drums used for sewage disposal. Thousands of acres of sea grass uprooted by repeated assaults from speedboat propellers. Sea birds driven from their nests by hotdoggers on Jet Skis.

He has seen the treasure hunting expedition that landed Mel Fisher in federal court, too.

Kruer says the device Fisher uses harms sensitive areas.

"It blows holes in the bottom, and not small holes," he says. "He went out and blew at least a hundred holes half the size of this room _ 8 to 10 feet deep, 30 to 40 feet across."

Kruer thinks the sanctuary plan isn't strict enough. He wants NOAA to keep speedboats and water scooters in deep water, away from sea grasses and wildlife.

He sifts through a stack of his photos: A sea turtle beheaded by a propeller. Sea grasses scarred like ski slopes. Boats speeding through wildlife refuges.

"Under their plan, as long as you're more than 200 yards from shore, you can run around in a foot of water all day long," he says.

There is one part of this sanctuary that nearly everyone agrees must be protected, even if they disagree how.

Hidden under the Atlantic, about 5 miles offshore from the Keys, is the only living coral reef in the United States.

Hard and soft coral _ 115 kinds _ grow along this reef, a biological treasure that shelters thousands of other sea creatures.

Vicki Weeks treasures its tranquility. That and the colors. "It's like looking at live confetti," she says.

A veteran diver, Weeks has been exploring the reef and bringing tourists to see its colorful strands of life for 20 years. They find nature's aquarium: gaudy tropical fish darting among brain corals and sea fans. Eels poking their garish heads from holes in the reef. Rays flapping by like birds. Sharks cruising a silent world.

"It's a new planet for them, really," Weeks says.

Yet to her, the reef is not the place it was 20 years ago. Its marine life is less diverse. The water is cloudier. Once, 80 to 100 feet of visibility was considered average, she said. Now there are days when she can't see the boat ladder 20 feet above her head.

The reef diving industry has few complaints about a sanctuary plan that allows its boats into no-fishing zones.

"It's in their best interest that there's live fish, clean water and healthy coral," Weeks says.

Still time for change

Five years after the Keys were declared a national marine sanctuary, the adoption of a plan to manage the sanctuary may still be a year away.

NOAA is taking public comments on its draft plan through this month. Then there will be a final plan, slated to go to Congress for review and to Florida's governor and Cabinet for approval next October.

What could change in that time?

The provision giving NOAA emergency powers to suspend activities in the Keys, for one. Seizing on it, opponents have been referring to Billy Causey, the sanctuary superintendent, as King Billy.

In truth, Causey himself was surprised by the regulatory powers added to the draft plan at NOAA headquarters. "It was much broader than what we anticipated," he says.

The no-fishing areas also may be revised in response to complaints from commercial fishermen about the size and location of replenishment zones.

Monroe County Commissioner Jack London hopes the citizens and the government can agree on a plan to protect resources vital to a place that lives on tourism and fishing. But he knows that won't be easy.

You have to remember, he says, that some of Key West's best families made their fortunes by plundering ships lured to the reefs with false beacons.

In the Keys, "there's always been a kind of pirate mentality," he says. "Our history is that of wreckers, pirates. There's a basic distrust of government here."

Highlights of the plan

What activities should be permitted in the water surrounding the Florida Keys?

That could depend on the tide of public opinion.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is taking comments from the public through this month on its proposed plan to manage the Keys as a national marine sanctuary.

The response will be incorporated into the final plan submitted for review by Congress and approval by Florida's governor and Cabinet next year.

Some key features of the proposal:

No-fishing zones _ Commercial and sport fishing is banned in three large "replenishment" zones near the Dry Tortugas, Key West and Key Largo and 19 smaller preservation areas near coral reefs. Together, these zones cover about 150 square nautical miles. Transporting fish through the zones also is prohibited.

Buffer zones _ Boaters must operate at idle speeds within 200 yards of residential shores, mangrove islands, bird nesting areas and other areas marked as sensitive.

Anchor rules _ In water shallower than 50 feet, no anchors can be dropped over coral formations. In sanctuary preservation areas, mooring buoys will be available to divers, and anchors cannot be used if buoys are available. In the future, the buoy system could be used to limit the number of boats visiting preservation areas.

Sea grass protection _ People caught damaging sea grasses, coral reefs or other natural features with boat propellers will be fined. The likely range of penalties: $150 and up.

Treasure salvaging _ Prohibited throughout the Keys without a government permit.

Water quality _ Pollution from stormwater runoff on U.S. 1 and inadequate septic systems will be reduced. The estimated cost: $275-million to $495-million. The revenue source: undetermined. Aerial spraying for mosquitoes over the Keys also may be reduced.

Written comments on the preliminary sanctuary plan may be sent to:

Florida Keys NMS

P.O. Box 500368

Marathon, FL 33050.

_ DAVID OLINGER

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