FDEP urged by environmental group to stop commercial use in Cayo Costa ‘narrows’

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BY T MICHELE WALKER – Every day, the Parks and Recreation Division’s concessionaire transports up to 100 people through the 450-foot-wide mangrove swamp and dune area of ​​the beach on bombing trips. These trips are sponsored by the Parks and Recreation Division of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

According to a Florida State Parks website, “Cayo Costa State Park protects the Charlotte Harbor estuary and offers visitors a majestic piece of unspoiled Florida. An unspoiled Gulf Coast island conjures up images of wind-shaped trees, dunes, beaches, and freedom to explore. This is especially true for the island of Cayo Costa. “

These excursions have been going on since 2016 and, according to a large base group called “Save Cayo Costa,” they take place without facilities or park supervision. It is due to a lack of oversight that this group is now urging the FDEP to stop bringing large commercial groups to the least resilient and vulnerable section of Cayo Costa State Park, known as of “the shrinkage”.

The Florida State Parks website explains that the trip is only accessible by boat or kayak. “This former Calusa Indian fishing ground includes nine miles of undeveloped shoreline for swimming, snorkeling, shelling, fishing, birding and exploring, as well as several walking and cycling trails on the island. interior of the island. Shorebirds are plentiful, and manatees, porpoises and sea turtles can be seen offshore. This is coastal Florida at its best!

According to Margi Nanney, an island defender for over 40 years, “the nesting patterns of shorebirds and turtles have been affected and the busy path has created a rift across the island which is prone to damage. breaches such as “Col Charley”, when Hurricane Charley’s eyewall struck in 2004. ”

In a statement by Alexandra Kuchta, FDEP deputy press secretary, “Cayo Costa State Park is a remarkable and majestic place that includes 14 kilometers of undeveloped shoreline, perfect for swimming, snorkeling, swimming. fishing, bird watching and a host of other outdoor activities. As the park is only accessible by boat or kayak, providing a ferry service is an essential part of public access to this precious resource. Currently, to provide this access, the park has a small dock and boardwalk, as well as a narrow path that leads directly to the beach. Based on allegations of possible ecological impacts, the ministry considered modifying its management plan for the unit. Upon further examination, which included a review by the park biologist, it was determined that there is not enough evidence at this time to justify the closure of the wharf, which would have a significant impact on the public access.

For “Save Cayo Costa” and those who oppose heavy commercial use, they say resources are running out and over time the damage will only get worse.

“It’s obvious to longtime users that the apartments are being destroyed and that a new canal is being illegally dredged with daily trips,” said Randy Johnson, a local boater.

There is strong evidence that seagrass beds have been affected by large 50-foot commercial boats with their twin engines as they traverse shallow water to access “narrow” ones.

Seagrass beds are vital to marine communities and large boats also pose a threat to the endangered manatees and sea turtles that inhabit Cayo Costa. Historically, the passages have been visited by private boaters, hikers and paddlers who have less impact on the resources.

John Cassani of Calusa Waterkeepers said, “The area to the east of the island is within the Pine Island Sound Aquatic Preserve, designated as Outstanding Florida Water and entitled to the greatest protection than the State of. Florida can provide for an aquatic resource. ”

The wharf plot was purchased in 1978 for preservation purposes with funds from environmentally endangered lands. In 2004, Hurricane Charley destroyed a small dock there, but boaters continued to use the access point.

“Save Cayo Costa,” claims that in 2015, FDEP misled dock licensing agencies by saying they were “reframing and reshaping an existing dock”. There was no dock there.

It was because of this claim that FDEP was exempted from an environmental resource permit, which would have triggered careful consideration and public notice.

In 2016, the State of Florida installed a door and lock on the new structure. After the public outcry, the lock was removed. Johnson argues that the DRP is limiting access for private boaters and has removed the only south side bay access to the park. He maintains that the total number of berths in the park is limited for private boaters. “If it were a land park, it would be the most inaccessible park for the nautical public to visit from protected waters without third party transport.”

After four years of work on the park management plan process, the DRP admitted the damage was ongoing and made the decision to stop commercial landings at the South Strait Wharf.

Here is their proposal for summer 2020:

“Access to South Dock / Southern Gulf Beach

In 2016, the existing bay-side dock near the southern end of Cayo Costa was designated for concession boats. The impacts of visitor use on natural communities and nesting habitat for shorebirds and sea turtles have occurred on the beach side of the trail extending from the south wharf, indicating the need to close this site to facilitate direct public access. The dock and trail will be maintained for park support purposes only. As is permitted in other remote areas of the park, this southern portion of the park will remain accessible to visitors by hiking or other means permitted from the Gulf, such as boating or canoeing. The reduction in visits to this site should lead to a gradual recovery of the impacts observed. Due to resource impact issues (i.e. seagrass beds and mangroves) and poor navigability of shallow water along this segment of the island, other locations for a Concession dock to the south and a beach access trail were found to be impractical. As additional plots are acquired, depth conditions change, and new navigational information becomes available, other access points may be assessed. Access to the concession ferry will continue to be facilitated through the Pelican Bay docks. “

In January of this year, the DRP overturned its decision to close the wharf after being rejected by the concessionaire. This reversal sparked a push by many to see the original language restored.

Groups like “Save Cayo Costa” are not against business groups that come to Cayo Costa State Park but believe that tours should be done responsibly so that resources are protected. Advocates believe that FDEP should immediately invest in increasing the number of boat slips and mooring space at northern facilities to prepare for an increase in visits. “What will it look like 50 to 100 years from now if uncapped trade groups in the most vulnerable part of the island continue to negatively impact resources?” The FDEP sells the most fragile part of Cayo Costa, ”said Nanney.

“The Florida Park Service will continue to diligently monitor any ecological impact to ensure the protection of Cayo Costa State Park,” Kuchta said. “We are also evaluating additional dealer education and awareness opportunities that will improve resource protection and customer management. Any update to the park unit management plan must be approved by the Acquisition and Restoration Board, which will allow the public to participate. “

The state’s FDEP Acquisitions and Recreation Council is expected to vote on the management plan on Friday, June 11, and the current language will allow commercial ferries to continue to drop thousands of people a year at the site unless the ‘ARC does not modify the submitted plan. .

The “Save Cayo Costa” organization is asking people to attend a meeting of the Florida Acquisition and Restoration Council at 9 am on Friday, June 11 in the FDEP Douglas Building in Tallahassee, where this issue will be discussed.



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