Displaced birds sit among the remaining vegetation at the edges of West Fanny Key. GEORGE GARRETT/Contributed

When Marathon resident Bob Williams set out on Sept. 19 for his daily swim around East and West Fanny Key, two small islands on the gulf side just off the south end of Marathon, he was met by a surprising and unavoidable obstacle: a barge and backhoe clearing vegetation off the center of the island. 

Confused, Williams quickly returned to shore and grabbed a GoPro, only to find the barge pulling away by the time he returned to the island. Multiple posts shared to Facebook sparked an outcry among community members, and Williams placed a call to Marathon City Manager George Garrett the next day. 

“I’ve seen many examples of fringe clearing to improve a water view for new homes, but this incident was particularly egregious because of the density of birds,” Williams said. “Egrets, herons, frigate birds, pelicans and cormorants were all nesting there. This is devastating to a healthy and viable rookery.”

Upon learning of the incident, Garrett contacted both the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to establish separate but cooperative investigations. After visiting the island with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and observing from the surrounding waters, Garrett directed the code department to issue a citation. 

“They absolutely needed, and did not seek, a building or clearing permit,” Garrett confirmed. “That’s a permit that would have been difficult, or nearly impossible, to obtain. It was absolutely a violation of our code.” 

Though only from a distance, Bob Williams captures imagery of the barge and backhoe clearing Fanny Key. BOB WILLIAMS/Contributed

A special magistrate’s hearing has been set for Thursday, Oct. 21 at 2 p.m.

In a statement, DEP added to Garrett’s comments. “The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is investigating reports of illegal mangrove clearing on West Fanny Key, which is a vacant offshore island. DEP has no record of an application for a permit to conduct the activities described above, and at this time, our investigation remains active and ongoing.” After obtaining access to the site with FWC investigators on Sept. 28, the department stated that it is in the process of drafting a warning letter. 

“The department is in the process of finalizing its Compliance Inspection Report, which will be made publicly available and posted to our public database once completed,” DEP continued. “Also, the department is in the process of drafting a warning letter, which will require the responsible parties to meet with DEP to review possible violations of Section 403, Florida Statute and provide the department the necessary facts to complete its regulatory review. The department is committed to enforcing Florida’s environmental laws and holding violators accountable. We will continue to share information as we progress through this enforcement process.”

In the initial stages of the investigation, photographs of the island taken immediately after Hurricane Irma, which wiped away most of the Keys’ greenery, called into question whether the vegetation on the island was living at the time of the clearing. However, personal photos and satellite imagery taken since the storm have confirmed that the island was home to many living trees and plants.

According to Williams, he and many others fear that the fines resulting from the clearing may not be enough to deter similar actions in the future. 

“After three decades of being here in the Keys, I’ve seen similar stuff on a much smaller scale. I’m tired of seeing the fines become a cost of doing business,” he said. Per the Monroe County Property Appraiser’s website, the Fanny Key islands were last sold in 2015 to a couple from California, and are currently valued at $3.3 million. Keys Weekly attempted to contact the couple for comments, but received no response. FWC officials ask anyone with further information to contact David Dipre by email at [email protected] or by calling 305-684-8711.

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Alex Rickert made the perfectly natural career progression from dolphin trainer to newspaper editor in 2021 after freelancing for Keys Weekly while working full time at Dolphin Research Center. A resident of Marathon since 2015, he fell in love with the Florida Keys community by helping multiple organizations and friends rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Irma. An avid runner, actor, and spearfisherman, he spends as much of his time outside of work on or under the sea having civil disagreements with sharks.