Offshore debris continues to be a navigation hazard

Members of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 1308 observe a large weed line near Alligator Reef off Islamorada on Friday, Sept. 22.
Members of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 1308 observe a large weed line near Alligator Reef off Islamorada on Friday, Sept. 22. dgoodhue@Keysreporter.com

Hurricane Irma not only littered the Keys with debris on land, the powerful Category 4 storm also scattered just about any kind of item imaginable throughout the navigable waterways surrounding the island chain, creating eyesores, environmental concerns and boating hazards.

“Fenders, lobster traps, you name it, it’s in there,” David Gross, a staff officer with U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 1308, said while on a mission off the Upper Keys last Friday to report on navigational hazards post-Irma.

Gross and fellow Flotilla 1308 members Jim Doran, John Gilbarty, Pete Ihrig and Ray Nemura were looking into a thick weed line near Alligator Reef that looked as though you could walk on it. The mat of sargassum weed and seagrass ripped from the ocean bottom was concentrated enough to support multiple solid objects.

Items resting on these weed lines are relatively easy to spot — and avoid — by boaters, but there’s plenty of stuff floating independently, which could quickly disable or sink vessels underway.

“There’s a lot more risk out here than people realize,” Gross said aboard his twin-engine center console catamaran. “It’s hard to keep people from coming out, but they have to realize how cautious they need to be.”

Until Oct. 1, the Coast Guard has designated one nautical mile from shore a “regulated navigation area” throughout the Keys. This mainly means boaters must operate at low speeds, i.e., not at plane. Gross said the designation was established largely because of the heavy existence of floating debris.

“It’s really not going to be safe for people to boat out here for a while,” Gross said.

Observing how many displaced commercial lobster traps were scoured all over the ocean, Nemura remarked to his colleagues, “They’re going to have a lot of work to do.”

“Sure are,” Gross responded from behind the wheel of his boat.

But Flotilla 1308’s primary mission that day was to document yellow buoys that border the 11 Sanctuary Preservation Areas in the Upper Keys. These areas are within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Chief among the federally enforced rules within the so-called SPAs are no fishing or anchoring. Diving is permitted, but boaters must use a mooring line tied to a white buoy located within the protected area. Divers are not allowed to touch anything they see underwater, including the coral — dead or living.

The yellow buoys let people know they are in a SPA.

“We were able to confirm that 12 of the 29 yellow buoys that mark the corner of these SPAs were missing,” Gross said.

The Auxiliary crew also spotted and documented substantial damage to the Alligator Reef lighthouse off Islamorada and the navigational aids on Molasses Reef, located southeast of Key Largo, and Hens and Chickens Shoal, south of Tavernier.

David Goodhue: 305-440-3204