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Everglades debate presents Watt with a fine kettle of fish

A hot kettle of fish is bubbling on the stove of Interior Secretary James G. Watt.

At issue: Who will get the fish resources of the Everglades National Park: commercial fishermen, or alligators - or both?

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Mr. Watt's decision could be crucial.

Watt's political appointees in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Fish , Wildlife and Parks have recommended that he back commercial fishing interests in Florida.Their goal: to set aside a previous federal ruling that would end commercial fishing within Everglades National Park by Dec. 31, 1985.

But the professionals of Watt's National Park Service are opposing the proposal, which is being pushed by Assistant Interior Secretary G. Ray Arnett and his special assistant, Ric Davidge. Everglades National Park superintendent Jack Morehead, supported by Park Service Director Russell Dickenson, have formally recommended that the commercial fishing termination date of Dec. 31, 1985, be maintained while a three-year, $1 million research program is conducted to determine the effects of any extension.

The dispute began in January 1980 when Watt's predecessor, Secretary Cecil Andrus, announced that commercial fishing in the park would be ended after a five-year period. During that time, the 299 commercial fishermen with valid permits could phase out their operations. Park superintendent at the time, John Good, also issued regulations forbidding commercial fishermen to exceed the bag limits imposed on sport fishermen, except for black mullet, silver mullet, and pompano, and also restricted the areas where fishing was allowed.

The local commercial fishermen's association, Organized Fishermen of Florida, sued in federal court for an emergency temporary injunction against the 1985 termination ruling and the new park regulations. The court denied the temporary injunction against the ruling and the new regulations, and the commercial fishermen did not press a request for a permanent injunction.

When the Reagan administration took office with the announced intenton of easing federal regulation and helping private industry, the commercial fishermen took their case to Washington.

Secretary Watt met with Arnett, Davidge, Dickenson, and Morehead and asked for position papers on which to base a decision. The assistant secretary's office told the National Park Service to call hearings in Florida and request public comments on a proposal by the Organized Fishermen of Florida to amend the 1985 prohibition.

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Superintendent Morehead reports that comments ran 9,000 against amending the ruling ending commercial fishing to only 2,000 in favor. He also says that the number of commercial fishermen with valid permits has dwindled from 299 to 215 in the past two years.

The assistant secretary's office obtained statements from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service that the data on the decline of the fishery within the park is not adequate. Park Service officials, while acknowledging that they need better data, maintain that the knowledge on which the original phase-out was based was sufficient.

The dispute boils down to the commercial fishermen's argument, supported by Arnett and Davidge, vs. the Park Service position. The fishermen contend that it is up to the Park Service to prove absolutely that commercial fishing would harm the park before restrictions are imposed. The Park Service, on the other hand, holds that until it has adequate data to prove that Everglades has enough fish to prevent park resources from being permanently harmed, the service must act to protect the best interests of the park.

Park Service director Dickenson says his agency has policy precedents supporting a decision that commercial fishing is inappropriate within a national park. Park Service policy takes into account the needs of the birds, alligators, and larger fish that feed on the small fish, as well as the interests of sport fishermen -- all of which, it contends, should supersede the demands of commercial fishermen.

Watt has publicly announced that he always supports the judgment of his professional resource managers. To override their recommendation in this case would cause him to lose respect within the department. And it would be viewed by environmental interests as one more example of political decisions that favor commercial interests over environmental needs.

Sources within the department say that the assistant secretary's office has instructed the Interior Department solicitor's office to prepare an out-of-court settlement with the Organized Fishermen of Florida that would grant a delay in the Dec. 31, 1985, termination date. The settlement awaits Secretary Watt's decision.

Park Service director Dickenson is strongly opposed to settling the case out of court and extending the termination date for commercial fishing before completion of the three-year study. He admits, however, that his superiors in the Department of the Interior have the power to make the decision without accepting the Park Service recommendation.

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