On-the-water revelers can continue partying at offshore hot spots throughout the Keys, as far as the federal government is concerned.
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council decided not to consider a proposed recommendation that could have eventually resulted in no-anchoring zones at popular shallow-water areas like Marathon’s sandbar off Valhalla, Picnic Island, Snipe Point and Marvin Key in the Lower Keys and off White Marlin Beach on Lower Matecumbe Key in Islamorada.
Instead, the 19-member board voted Tuesday on a resolution that seeks more law enforcement from the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. People wanting stricter rules are disappointed because existing laws prevent law enforcement from making any significant difference.
Police have said repeatedly that they lack the authority to stop the drinking, loud music and littering about which locals complain because, other than the former, the partiers aren’t doing anything illegal. “My deputies don’t tell people to turn their radios down, because they’re not breaking the law,” Sheriff Rick Ramsay said in an interview this week. Monroe County and municipal noise ordinances don’t apply during the day and people are allowed to drink alcohol on their boats, Ramsay said. But the offshore parties have become more frequent and, in certain places, wilder, residents say. This prompted several members of the Advisory Council to take up the issue this week.
The Advisory Council doesn’t have rule-making authority, but sanctuary managers often carefully consider its recommendations when crafting policy. About 50 people turned out to the Advisory Council’s scheduled meeting at the Hyatt Place Hotel and Faro Blanco Resort and Marina in Marathon Tuesday, most to speak against restricting access and use to the areas in question.
“We live on a strip of land surrounded by the ocean,” said Key West native Rick Gage. “We should all be able to enjoy it.” The issue seems to be a much bigger problem in Islamorada in the Upper Keys and off Duck Key in the Middle Keys than it is in the Lower Keys.
Council member Martin Moe, who lives on a waterfront lot in Islamorada, says the partying is out of control. “Lower Matecumbe has a problem,” Moe said to those attending and to his colleagues on the council. “And it’s a problem you don’t want to have.” Moe appealed to the rest of the council from an environmental standpoint as well. He said the boats that are anchoring near his home — sometimes 200 at a time — are damaging seagrass that is essential habitat to most of the offshore wildlife.
Sherry Popham, who lives on Duck Key and chairs her subdivision’s security advisory board, said partiers play loud music and drink all day. She said they swim onto the subdivision’s private beach and often anchor their boats in its canals. Popham acknowledged that much of what bothers her and her neighbors is not illegal, but it “really is an issue affecting the enjoyment of our homes.”
But according to those at Tuesday’s meeting, the situation at Lower Keys sandbars appears to be far different. Those who spoke at the meeting fear any recommendation made by the Advisory Council would restrict their access to places they and their families have enjoyed responsibly for sometimes generations.
“There’s no reef in the backcountry,” said Jimmy Greene of Key West. “There’s nothing but sand. We just want to be able to enjoy it and have a good time.” Despite most speaking against the sanctuary taking action, there were some at Tuesday’s meeting urging more regulation.
“It’s a joke what’s going on here with enforcement,” said David Petkovich, who lives in the Sandy Point subdivision in Islamorada. “I haven’t seen a [police] boat in the water since February.”
Sanctuary Superintendent Sean Morton said local and state marine law enforcement is “stretched thin.” He urged residents to write their congressional representatives to appeal for more federal law enforcement in the Keys. “More resources are needed for enforcement,” Morton said. “I can’t encourage you enough to write these letters to your representatives.”
Ramsay reiterated that these gatherings are not against the law, and said when his deputies patrol the parties off Lower Matecumbe Key, they seldom see anything illegal happening. “I’m not sure how big of a problem this actually is,” said Ramsay. “We have done more patrols but haven’t taken action because no laws have been broken.” Ramsay added, however, that the sandbar in front of the Post Card Inn at Holiday Isle off of Whale Harbor in Windley Key keeps his deputies busy with fights, underage drinking and drugs. “Our biggest problem area is the sandbar at Holiday Isle,” Ramsay said. “We put manpower where resources are needed.”