To create a managed mooring field in Boca Chica Basin in the Lower Keys, Monroe County needs a place for boaters to come ashore.
Right now, one does not exist.
“This is going to be hard,” Monroe County Commissioner Danny Kolhage said last Wednesday. “This could be the first and last obstacle going forward.”
Commissioners meeting in Key West heard a feasibility report from Danielle Irwin of Coastal Systems International that outlines requirements for the county to establish a 40-vessel mooring field in basin waters off the Stock Island oceanside, near mile marker 5.
A recent spot count showed 54 boats anchored in Boca Chica Basin, with 58 boats accepted as a general average number.
Liveaboard vessels in the basin now receive free sewage pumpouts to prevent harmful and unlawful discharges, but unapproved “debris piles” used for mooring damage the sea floor. Boats sometimes scrape seagrass from the bottom or block sunlight, creating barren “halos.”
The Boca Chica Basin study was commissioned a year ago when the county actively sought to purchase a struggling commercial fish house best known as Gulf Seafood for $7.3 million — $5 million from Monroe County and $2.3 million from the state — to preserve dockage and five upland acres of working waterfront. Contract conditions imposed by the state caused the mortgage holder to end negotiations last summer and sell to a private buyer.
The county’s Boca Chica mooring-field study largely assumed part of the Gulf Seafood property would become a shore-side facility with dinghy docks, sewage pumpout and trash bins, at a minimum. “We lost the potential site this whole study was based on,” Kolhage said.
“Staff continues to look at the east coast of Stock Island ... looking at all kinds of various properties” for possible land base sites, Rich Jones of the county’s Marine Resources Office said.
Upland space and water-depth requirements, along with a pronounced lack of willing sellers, limit the options, Jones said. “We can’t submit [state environmental-permit applications] without a shore-side facility.”
County legislative-affairs director Lisa Tennyson, who spearheaded the county’s effort to buy Gulf Seafood, said the property’s current owners “definitely expressed an interest” in providing space for a mooring-field land base — at the right price. Tentative talks were disrupted by Hurricane Irma.
Irwin said large parts of Boca Chica Basin lack the state’s minimum required depth of four feet at mean low tide, which limits potential mooring sites to 40 boats. Debris piles would be removed from the bottom, likely replaced with “eco-mooring” pilings intended to protect “an area rich with resources.”
Boaters would be charged a monthly fee to use the moorings. The rent would be determined by costs to create and oversee the mooring field and its land base. “We could provide more” amenities, Jones said, “but the more we provide, the higher [the fee] is going to be.”
Commissioners urged staff to keep looking for a potential land base. “The vessels out there now are destroying areas on the bottom and we’re going to continue to have that” without a managed area, Mayor David Rice said.
Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206