Picnic Island not on regulation list

By Steve Estes

It doesn’t appear as though a favorite on-the-water locals gathering spot will be affected by coming additional regulations from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Next month, the sanctuary advisory council will hear presentations from three working groups that have been formed to update sanctuary regulations in regards to shallow water preservation, ecological systems preservation and coral reef preservation.

And one of the potions of the shallow-water group’s recommendations concerns additional regulations for “party spot” sandbars up and down the Keys.

On any given weekend, thousands of local boaters make their way to Picnic Island, in Pine Channel, just north of Little Palm Island. Boaters toss anchor, jump overboard and proceed to trade stories, food and drinks through the course of hot afternoons.

At any one time, other than a couple of special events, there are usually more than 100 boats floating at short anchors around the small sand and mangrove island.

And while the sanctuary working groups will reportedly recommend closing, or more stringently regulating, some other sandbar gathering places, Picnic Island isn’t on that list, according to Karrie Carnes, sanctuary public outreach coordinator.

“There aren’t any what we call public party spots in the eastern Lower Keys area that are part of these recommendations,” said Carnes.

Sanctuary officials have been concerned about the effects on seabottom of large groups of boaters gathering in shallow water areas like sandbars. They claim that significant prop and anchor damage occurs during these large gatherings, hindering the development of seagrasses and other marine resources.

Officials are also concerned about the amount of trash that is left floating in the waters following these gatherings, trash that can have a detrimental effect on marine life and later make its way to shore, clogging up spawning grounds for small fish and littering turtle nesting beaches.

The National Key Deer Refuge already has some restrictions on out-island use by humans during certain seasons where bird migrations are heavy or turtles are nesting, and had considered closing more areas to human visitation due to trash issues.

“Many of the recommendations we’ll see next month are targeted restrictions,” said Carnes. “They will only be in effect during species seasons.”

Several of the recommendations also don’t involve closing off areas, she said, just changing the areas from motor to pole zones or issuing no-wake zone provisions to prevent erosion issues and prop scarring of the sea bottom.

There are some heavily visited local areas, however,that will see some tighter regulations, such as Marvin Key and Snipes Key, other sandy beach areas where locals motor for miniature parties or just swimming.

There will be restrictions suggested for off-shore sandbar areas surrounding Bahia Honda.

“It is important to remember that these reports are just  in draft form, and these are only recommendations,” said Carnes.

She said there will still be plenty of opportunity for pubic input as first the sanctuary advisory council discusses the recommendations and then the sanctuary management board acts on them.

With the pace of the approval process, Carnes says that it will be late summer of 2015 before any of the recommendations that may survive the public vetting process could take effect.

Locals had been concerned that sanctuary officials might close off, or heavily restrict, the Picnic Island area, affecting the annual July 4 boat-in, or the well-attended annual Wetstock event. The first draws nearly 200 boating participants while the second draws more than 350 boats each year, with well in excess of 1,000 people.

This year’s Wetstock event is slated for September 1.

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