BY T MICHELE WALKER – On any given day, the Division of Park and Recreation’s concessionaire transports as many as 100 people across the 450-foot wide mangrove and beach dune area for shelling trips. These trips are sponsored by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Parks and Recreation’s.
According to a Florida State Parks website, “Cayo Costa State Park protects the Charlotte Harbor Estuary and provides visitors with a majestic piece of untouched Florida. An unspoiled Gulf Coast island evokes images of wind-shaped trees, dunes, beaches, and freedom to explore. This especially rings true for Cayo Costa Island.”
These excursions have been taking place since 2016, and according to a large grassroots group called “Save Cayo Costa,” they have been taking place with no facilities or park oversight. It is because of a lack of oversight that this group is now urging the FDEP to stop bringing large commercial groups to the park’s least resilient and most vulnerable section of Cayo Costa State Park known as “the narrows.”
The Florida State Parks website explains that the trip is accessible only by boat or kayak. “This former fishing ground of the Calusa Indians features nine miles of undeveloped shoreline for swimming, snorkeling, shelling, fishing, birdwatching, and exploration along with several walking and bicycling trails through the island’s interior. Shorebirds are numerous, and one might spot manatees, porpoises, and sea turtles offshore. This is coastal Florida at its best!”
According to Margi Nanney, an island advocate for over 40 years, “Shorebird and turtle nesting patterns have been affected and the heavily traveled path has created a divide across the island which is subject to breach like “Charley Pass,” when Hurricane Charley’s eyewall hit it in 2004.”
In a statement made by Alexandra Kuchta, Deputy Press Secretary of the FDEP, “Cayo Costa State Park is a remarkable and majestic place that features nine miles of undeveloped shoreline perfect for swimming, snorkeling, fishing, birdwatching and a host of other outdoor activities. As the park is reachable only by boat or kayak, providing a ferry service is an essential component of providing public access to this treasured resource. Currently, to provide this access, the park has a small dock and boardwalk, along with a narrow trail that leads directly to the beach. Based on claims regarding possible ecological impacts, the department considered amending its unit management plan. Upon further consideration, which included review by the park biologist, it was determined that there is not enough evidence at this time to warrant closure of the dock, which would significantly impact public access.”
For “Save Cayo Costa” and those who oppose the heavy commercial use, they say the resources are being depleted and that over time, the damage will only get worse.
“It is obvious to long-time users that the flats are being blown out and a new channel is being illegally dredged with daily trips,” said Randy Johnson, a local boater.
There is strong evidence that the seagrass beds have been impacted by the large 50-foot commercial boats with their twin engines as they traverse the shallow waters to access “the narrows.”
Seagrass beds are vital to marine communities and large boats also pose a threat to the endangered manatees and sea turtles who call the Cayo Costa home. The narrows historically have been visited by private boaters, hikers, and paddlers who have less impact on the resources.
John Cassani of Calusa Waterkeepers said, “The area east of the island is within the Pine Island Sound Aquatic Preserve, designated as an Outstanding Florida Water and is entitled to the most protection the state of Florida can provide for an aquatic resource.”
The dock parcel was purchased in 1978 for preservation using Environmentally Endangered Lands funds. In 2004 Hurricane Charley destroyed a small dock that was there but boaters continued to use the access point.
“Save Cayo Costa,” claims that in 2015 the FDEP misled dock permitting agencies when they stated that they were “reframing and redecking an existing dock.” There was no dock at that location.
It was because of this claim that the FDEP was exempted from an Environmental Resource Permit which would have triggered careful review and public notice.
In 2016, the State of Florida installed a gate and a lock on the new structure. After public outcry, the lock was removed. Johnson contends the DRP is limiting private boater access and has taken away the only south bayside access to the park. He contends there are limited total park moorings for private boaters. “If this were a land-based park, it would be the most inaccessible park for the boating public to visit from protected waters without third party transportation.”
After four years of working through the park’s management plan process, the DRP admitted damages have been ongoing and made the decision to stop the commercial landings at the narrows’ south dock.
The following is their proposal from the summer of 2020:
“South Dock / Southern Gulf Beach Access
In 2016, the existing bayside dock located near the south end of Cayo Costa was designated for concession boats. Visitor use impacts to the natural communities and shorebird/sea turtle nesting habitat have occurred on the beachside of the trail extending from the south dock, indicating the need for closure of this site to facilitate direct public access. The dock and trail will be maintained for park support purposes only. As permitted in other re- mote areas of the park, this southern portion of the park will remain accessible for visitors by hiking or other authorized means from the Gulf, such as self-guided boating or paddling. Reduced visitation at this site is expected to result in a gradual recovery of the observed impacts. Due to resource impact concerns (i.e., seagrass beds and mangrove swamp) and poor navigability of the shallow waters along this segment of the island, alternative locations for a southern concession dock and beach access trail were determined infeasible. As additional parcels are ac- quired, depth conditions change, and new navigational information becomes available, alternative access points may be evaluated. Concession ferry access will continue to be facilitated through the docks at Pelican Bay.”
In January of this year, the DRP reversed its decision to close the dock after pushback from the concessionaire. This reversal has triggered a push by many to see the original language reinstated.
Groups like “Save Cayo Costa” are not against commercial groups coming to Cayo Costa State Park but feel visitation should be done responsibly so resources are protected. Advocates believe the FDEP must immediately invest in increasing the number of boat slips and dockage space at the north facilities to prepare for increased visitation. “What will it look like in 50 to 100 years if uncapped commercial groups on the most vulnerable part of the island continue to negatively impact the resources? The FDEP is selling out the most fragile part of Cayo Costa,” stated Nanney.
“The Florida Park Service will continue to diligently monitor for any ecological impacts to ensure protection of Cayo Costa State Park,” stated Kuchta. “We are also evaluating additional opportunities for education and outreach by the concessionaire that will enhance protection of resources and stewardship by customers. Any updates to the unit management plan of the park must be approved by the Acquisition and Restoration Council, which will provide an opportunity for public input.”
The state’s FDEP Acquisition and Recreation Council are set to vote on the management plan on Friday, June 11, and the current language will allow the commercial ferries to continue to drop thousands of people per year off at the site unless the ARC amends the submitted plan.
The “Save Cayo Costa” organization is asking people to attend a meeting of the Florida Acquisition and Restoration Council at 9 a.m. on Friday,June 11 in the FDEP Douglas Building in Tallahassee, where this issue will be discussed.