Islands may be closed to publicBy Steve Estes
Almost any weekend when the weather is warm and the seas temperate, one can find anywhere from a few to hundreds of boats parked at shallow-water islands up and down the Keys.
Boaters, one to 10 at a time, motor up to the shallow-water islands, pitch the anchor over the side and spend a day, or an afternoon, or a few hours, basking in the sun, sampling the temperate waters, reminiscing with old friends, meeting new friends, munching on snacks and sandwiches, downing water, sodas, and more than a few beers.
Impromptu volleyball games break out on a whim. Pet canines float by on inflatable rafts. Gas-fired grills send the smell of cooking meats into the air.
As the sun begins to set, boats fire up and motor off to various canals, waterfront homes or boat ramps.
In the local area, the favorite spot for such on-the-water parties is a place dubbed by the locals as Picnic Island. The name sticks because the atmosphere is reminiscent of a large family reunion picnic, and because the water is shallow enough to plant grills in the sand and have a picnic if one desires.
The small island is located just south of Ramrod Key, about a mile off US 1, and north of the marina at Little Palm Island. Water depth is about four feet at high tide within 100 yards of the island, much less to non-existent closer in.
At least once each year, local businesses sponsor a live music concert on the water that has been dubbed Wetstock. It may be the only event like it in the country. Hundreds of boats, thousands of revelers and a host of volunteers gather around a barge moored in the sand and while away the afternoon listening to live music, and partying.
Picnic Island isn’t the only spot of its type in the Keys. There are other near-shore islands where smaller gatherings take place, and some, like the Sandbar in Islamorada, that draw hundreds every weekend.
Each of those party spots, however, are surrounded by waters controlled in some fashion by the National Marine Sanctuary. And recently the Sanctuary officials have begun to wonder if public use of those near-shore islands is doing irreparable harm to the ocean communities in the area.
Last month, Sanctuary officials announced plans to conduct a study on the damages done to seagrass and other shallow-water aquatic communities to determine the amount of human impact on those communities at party islands.
The purpose of the study, say officials, is to determine if some of those popular party spots should be closed to public use to protect the aquatic communities beneath the surface.
The Sanctuary will undertake the study in conjunction with the state Department of Environmental Protection and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, both of whom have jurisdiction over the above-water resources.
For the local area in the Lower Keys, however, the study’s outcome has little likelihood to affect island party spots, particularly Picnic Island, says National Key Deer Refuge Manager Anne Morkill.
The Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuge complex includes the Key Deer Refuge and the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, both of which encompass thousands of acres of both land-based and water-based resources.
“We are on board with limiting public use of near-shore islands when circumstances warrant,” said Morkill. “But I don’t believe this study will have a huge impact on islands under our purview.”
First, said Morkill, most of the islands managed by the refuge are mangrove islands with little to no sand bottom, making them not the hottest of commodities for water-borne parties.
Those that could be included in any future management effort are mostly sand bottoms where there are no aquatic communities.
“The Sanctuary study will dovetail with our own reviews for the implementation of our backcountry management plan,” said Morkill.
The refuge doesn’t own all of the small islands dotting the back country, or those scattered throughout the shallow-water areas of the Atlantic to the south. Those it doesn’t own won’t be affected by any of its regulatory actions.
“I’m not sure if we own Picnic Island, but we’ll know when the first round of public scoping meetings begin,” said Morkill. “And because the bottom is sand, I doubt seriously that we or DEP or the Sanctuary will find that human impact levels are unacceptable.”
She said she believes the Sanctuary is already aware of the areas where human impact might need to be curtailed in some fashion.
She said plans are now to begin public input meetings in early Spring next year so the agencies can gather thoughts from the local population.
“It’s been 20 years since the refuge last completed a back country management plan, so we are in need of an update. What I think we’ll find is that we have several areas where we can reduce or remove restrictions on public use of near-shore islands,” she said.
She said there might also be cases where islands can be shifted from year-round closures to seasonal closures, “mostly due to nesting issues. If the island isn’t used for nesting year-round, we don’t need use restrictions year-round.”
Morkill says she’s heard the rumors around town that her agency, DEP and the Sanctuary are going to close as many islands to the public as possible.
She doesn’t believe that to be the case.
“I can’t imagine this will be a big land grab by any agency in the Lower Keys,” said Morkill.