Marine salvors this week were racing to get 32 abandoned boats off the bottom in Marquesas Keys waters before the birds arrive.
Monday, a crew from Coffin Marine Services removed seven of the deteriorating vessels, many holding “hazardous materials including oily residue, fuels and other pollutants,” says a report from the Monroe County Marine Resources Office, which is spearheading the $61,200 project.
The Marquesas, six islands about 17 miles west of Key West, lie within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex.
“This project has required extensive planning and coordination with multiple state and federal agencies, and is logistically complicated due to the remote location and specialized boats and equipment necessary to perform the job,” said Marine Resources senior administrator Rich Jones.
The Marquesas provide rare Lower Keys habitat for protected species like green and hawksbill sea turtles, the Miami blue butterfly and the piping plover, said Daniel Clark, manager of the Keys wildlife refuge system.
“Removal of these vessels and marine debris is critical for the continued conservation of these rare animals and their habitats because if left as is, they would likely continue to impact this important habitat,” Clark said. “We are pleased to be a part of this multi-agency effort and thank the county, state and other federal partners as we work together to ensure these precious ecosystems remain in good condition for future generations."
Most of the derelict boats ended in waters and shores of the Marquesas as Cuban migrants fled north in the ramshackle craft.
“These are sensitive and important environmental areas where derelict vessels and pollution do not belong,” Capt. David Dipre of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said.
The removal project aims to conclude before bird-nesting season on the remote islands begins April 1. However, strong winds and high seas slowed efforts after Monday, with work continuing through this weekend to remove the derelict “chugs,” boats rigged with old engines. Most are between 18 and 25 feet long.
Several are completely submerged. “Others are strewn along sandy beaches and mangroves” considered essential nesting areas for sea turtles and birds, county information officer Cammy Clark said. “Coffin Marine Services will use a 60-foot barge with a boom crane and other resources to remove the boats.”
Jones said the county uses some of the local share of state Boating Improvement Funds to remove derelict boats throughout the Keys, usually about 80 a year. This is the first project of its type in the Marquesas. Some of the funding will come from federal fines levied on boaters that damaged resources in the Keys national marine sanctuary.
Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206