updated 11/15/2006 11:24:32 AM ET 2006-11-15T16:24:32

The final element needed to complete the largest marine reserve in North America off Florida's southwest coast won approval Tuesday from Gov. Jeb Bush and the state Cabinet.

The panel voted 3-1 for a management plan banning fishing in a 61 square-mile section of Dry Tortugas National Park in the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Straits about 75 miles west of Key West.

The new Research Natural Area will be added to the existing Tortugas Ecological Reserve, where fishing has been prohibited since 2001. Combined the two areas will prohibit fishing in 261 square miles.

The area is designed to help overfished species such as grouper and red snapper recover. It also will provide scientists with a living laboratory and divers and other visitors with recreational and educational opportunities.

"It's good for the fish; it's good for the ecosystem; it's good for fishermen," said University of Miami marine biologist Jerald Ault, who testified in support of the plan.

Governor-elect opposes ban
The only dissenting vote was cast by Attorney General Charlie Crist, also Florida's governor-elect.

"I am reluctant to restrict a freedom from individual recreational fishermen and fisherwomen," Crist said.

In announcing his vote, Crist spoke fondly of growing up fishing with his father and how that helped cement their bond.

Bush and the Cabinet added a provision that would restore fishing after five years without another vote.

Their approval was the final step before the management plan is published in the Federal Register. It previously had been approved by the federal Office of Management and Budget and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which will have an enforcement role.

Conservation Commission chairman Rodney Barreto said his panel was unanimous although it usually opposes fishing bans.

"If we're going to have a no-fishing zone that would be a true laboratory out in the field, this is the place," Barreto said.

Already lightly fished
He said the research area is so far from shore few recreational fishermen go there. Most of the park — 71.5 square miles — will remain open to fishing including the area immediately surrounding Fort Jefferson, where most anglers congregate.

Monroe County commissioners and several environmental groups supported the proposal including the Ocean Conservancy, Audubon Society, Nature Conservancy and Florida Wildlife Federation.

The only opposing comment came from Ted Forsgren, executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association of Florida, a recreational fishing group. He said a fishing ban should be a last resort and that his group would support alternatives such as bag limits and catch-and-release requirements.

Forsgren disputed proponents' argument that protecting fish in the restricted areas would help repopulate other waters along Florida's east and west coasts. He said fish will migrate the other way.

"Fish aren't stupid," he said. "They're going into these areas because they're not hassled in these areas."

Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson also had questioned the need for a ban, citing studies that show fish stocks have increased dramatically in recent years.

Bronson voted for it, though, after Ault said those fish are still young and have low reproduction rates. They need a chance to mature so they can produce offspring at rates high enough to restore fish populations, he said.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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