Heavy traffic weekends pose biggest threats to Keys waters
With the Florida Keys businesses and residents preparing for an influx of holiday weekend visitors, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council is charged with a doubly challenging task – working to preserve the fragile marine environment that constitutes the local economy.
That was precisely the message council chairman Bruce Popham carried with him to Savannah, Ga. during a recent regional summit.
“We also discussed the possibility of looking at a national advisory council,” Popham reported, that would enable all 14 of the protected marine areas around the country to share concerns regarding each of their respective sites – as well as creative solutions to management problems.
One of the most challenging of those discussed among the Florida Keys advisory council on during Tuesday’s all day meeting at the Marathon Garden Club was how best to patrol when unknowing – or unwilling – boaters motor in to established “No Motor” Sanctuary Preservation Areas like Tavernier Key, Dove Key and Rodriguez Key in the Upper Keys.
Many of the advisory council members – comprised of environmentalists, preservationists, fishermen, marine and dive business owners as well as representatives from city and county governments – agreed that many of the violations in these areas occur on holiday weekends.
If zoning regulations are not actively enforced, suggested Superintendent Sean Morton, it is simply a reinforcement of lawlessness.
Steven Leopold of Tavernier said he bears witness each holiday weekend to a huge influx of boats at the Whale Harbor Channel sandbar, “where all boats are grounded and everyone’s discharging.” He added that despite law enforcement issuing tickets for violations, Leopold said he’s seen water quality samples significantly decline as well as an increase in sand areas in the past 22 years.
Chris Bergh of The Nature Conservancy said the depletion of natural resources also directly impacts the ability of local flats fishing guides to catch the highly sought-after bonefish.
As Popham stated in his summit update, the continuous challenge for the advisory council is drawing the direct connection from the value of the sanctuaries and their preservation to positive, and negative, economic impact on the Florida Keys.
Major Alfredo Escanio of the FWC’s law enforcement division said of the 36 field officers currently responsible for patrolling Monroe County, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – who also oversees the National Marine Sanctuary program – funds only six of those positions, four of which are in Key West.
Escanio added that when charged with three primary goals of Resource Protection, Boating and Waterways and Public Safety, “that’s not a lot” of staff.
“Unfortunately, we tend to be mostly reactive in this region,” Major Escanio continued, adding that with some streamlining at the state level, his department is hoping to be able to add some positions in Monroe County.
John Hunt of FWC’s Reseach Institute suggested shifting some of the patrol hours to higher traffic areas within the preserve to affect a more significant economic impact.
“We need the eyes and ears of the public in order to enact a detailed enforcement patrol,” Escania asked the council members to convey to their constituents.
Scott Donahue also presented years of collected data and research in a preliminary FKNMS Condition Report that is currently under external peer review per federal standards. The comprehensive report on Water, Habitat, Living Resources and Maritime Archeological Resources will be officially released in October.
“This report is a piece of the pie that in the fall is going to make an impact (with regards to regulation and funding),” Morton clarified for the council.
The group’s next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, August 16 in Marathon at the Garden Club. Agendas will be available in advance of the meeting at floridakeys.noaa.gov and there will be allotted times for public comment.