At Biscayne National Park, Proposed Boat Anchoring Restrictions Trigger Protests and Send Management Back to the Drawing Board

Anchored to the bottom, and designed to keep tethered boats from drifting away, mooring buoys come in various shapes and sizes. Kates Photo Diary via Flickr.

Miami area boaters fear that new regulations being drafted at Biscayne National Park will unnecessarily restrict traditional pleasure boat anchoring practices in a heavy-use area west of Elliott Key. Biscayne Superintendent Mark Lewis says that these fears are overblown, but has nevertheless promised that a second draft of the park's new Mooring Buoy & Marker Plan will be released for public comment before the plan is finalized.

If you consult the Biscayne National Park map available at this site, you'll see that Elliott Key is a long, narrow, island that roughly parallels the mainland about eight miles across Biscayne Bay from Convoy Point. The shallow, sheltered waters lying on the western (mainland-facing) side of the island have long been popular with pleasure boaters from greater Miami.

Anchored boats especially congregate at the northern end of the island, which is just 15 or so miles south of Key Biscayne. Two areas account for most of the use. One is Sands Cut, a shallow 1,000 foot-long passage between Elliott Key and Sand Key. The other is the University Dock anchorage, which is located a little over a mile to the southwest.

These areas have traditionally seen heavy use for activities such as wading, swimming, snorkeling, and nature viewing. On any given weekend day during the summer or fall, more than 100 boats can be expected to gather at Sands Cut alone.

The Park Service has found boater use of the Elliott Key vicinity problematic. At Sands Cut [aka Sands Cut sandbar], for example, there are many visitor use conflicts, and the traditional practice of clustering or rafting anchored boats creates navigation obstacles and hinders ranger access to boaters who need emergency assistance or are causing trouble. The latter need is a major concern. Fully one-fifth of the park's law enforcement incidents -- most involving some combination of underage drinking, disorderly conduct, assault, excessive noise, or boating accidents -- occur at Sands Cut.

Other concerns center on the need to protect vital park resources, including easily-damaged seagrass beds, patch reefs, and related aquatic habitat. Careless boating and anchoring has already severely damaged or obliterated many seagrass beds in the park. Most will take decades to restore, and some are gone for good, replaced by sandbars and shoals.

To help alleviate the worst of the problems that anchored boats cause in the shallow waters near Elliott Key (as well as the Stiltsville complex just south of Key Biscayne), the park prepared a Mooring Buoy & Marker Plan whose stated purpose was "to increase the protection of marine natural and cultural resources while enhancing visitor enjoyment of these resources, as well as to protect human health and safety through the appropriate use of mooring buoys, aids to navigation, and informational signs." In other words, the proposed plan would not only incorporate boater education and safety measures, but also compel boaters in certain areas to moor their boats to park-installed mooring buoys instead of dropping anchor.

When the proposed plan was released for a public comment period slated to end September 3, it ignited a veritable firestorm of protest in the Miami boating community. Some boaters understood the plan to say that Sands Cut would be off-limits to them or that mooring fields like the one slated for University Dock would not have enough mooring buoys to accommodate the demand. Many believed they wouldn't be permitted to anchor boats in the waters anywhere west of the islands except in the few mooring fields the plan provided. Some boaters even suspected that the Park Service was trying to force the cancellation of the immensely popular Columbus Day weekend party, an annual three-day Mardi Gras-style party that has the leeward side of Elliott Key crowded with boats of every description as far as the eye can see. There was no want of rumors about other perils and indignities that might lurk in the plan's fine print.

The Park Service had to act, and it was a humbling experience. On August 26, 2010, Biscayne Superintendent Mark Lewis released a "Dear Friend of Biscayne National Park" letter for public circulation. In his opening paragraph Lewis alluded to "grave misunderstandings circulating about the Plan resulting in a recent flood of concerned emails, letters, and calls to the park," and added that he "wished to clarify these misconceptions and explain what the park is trying to accomplish."

This notice, which is currently posted on the park website, pretty much says it all:

The National Park Service has received many, many comments concerning the proposed Mooring Buoy and Marker Plan for Biscayne National Park. The purpose of this Plan is to enhance visitor enjoyment, increase safety, and reduce damage to park resources. Although there are many aspects of the Plan which are very popular, there are also important features of the plan which we did not make clear enough, and which have drawn a lot of concern.

We believe that both the park resources and the public would be well served by additional public discussion. Accordingly, the park will review and analyze all of the comments we receive during this round of public comment and then prepare an new draft plan. In a few months, after we’ve had the opportunity to revise the plan where appropriate, and clarify portions where needed, we will release a new draft for public comment.

I will take this opportunity to state again, this draft was not intended [to] close down visitor access to Sands Cut. This draft also would not have prohibited anchoring along the western edge of Elliott Key, except for within several small mooring buoy fields. And finally, this draft would not have prohibited anchoring within the marked anchorage area during the Columbus Day Weekend event.

As the park reviews the current comments and prepares a new draft, we will try to reach out to additional groups who felt surprised by the current draft. Please feel free to contact the park, at 786-335-3623, if you would like a park representative to speak before a group or organization.

Finally, I want to thank all of the people who love this wonderful place and who have been engaged in how the park is managed. The National Park Service is mandated by Congress to conserve park resources while providing for appropriate visitor use. We would like to continue this dialog with members of the public as we move forward in this planning process.

There are two very different ways to construe this situation. The Park Service's harshest critics might characterize it as a "failure to communicate" public relations fiasco. Others (and I include myself in this camp) might prefer to think of it as a prime example of agency policy- and decision-making that remains responsive to public input, takes ownership of its mistakes, and resolves to correct them.

Comments

As an experienced and responsible boat owner, I completely understand the need to regulate boating in Biscayne bay, I will also like to add that I have been visiting sands key on weekends since 1994 when I purchased my first boat and both of my kids now age 23 and 24 learned how to enjoyed and appreciated nature while protecting the environment,
both of them now own boats and have taken the coastguard safety course which to begin with should be one of the requirements to safely use a boat, in the bay or anywhere else and instead of reducing the amount of people that would be able to visit Elliot key or sands key, a system should be implemented to control who visits the place, by either implementing a fee or license system that can could be revoked or fined if rules are not followed, I personally believe safety and protection should be first but don't punish responsible individuals for the ignorance and carelessness of others.

Thank you
Eloy Fernandez

I am a 25 year boat owner with two boat safety courses under my belt, and was very upset when I heard that Eliot keys Sand Bar was going to be off limits to anchoring. I have been going to Eliot most of my life and have attended many Columbus Day regattas, but if boaters are not allowed to go to Eliot Key, Dade County will somehow feel it in their pocket books. On an average it cost me at least $200.00 dollars to spend a day at the sand bar, not to mention the Parks boat ramp fee which most of the users are paying to go to Eliot Key. Does the math Superintendent Mark Lewis, if you need to protect our natural resources enforce the laws that damage them, and not the boaters that protect them…..