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A protective shell for barrier island

Some call for a ban on overnight camping and pets on Shell Key.

By Cristina Silva, Times Staff Writer
Published April 4, 2007

Overnight campers and their dogs may no longer be welcome at Shell Key, said one official of the agency that manages the preserve.
[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
A great blue heron is framed by a sign that tells visitors the rules during their stay on Shell Key in southern Pinellas County. Some campers have been leaving garbage and human waste on the island.

Visitors to Shell Key, a pristine bird sanctuary with expansive white shores, might want to watch their step.

The island is being used as a public bathroom, according to environmentalists and conservationists who want county officials to ban overnight camping, alcohol and pets from the preserve.

"You have too many people for everyone to do whatever they want anymore," said Dave Kandz, chair of the conservation committee for the St. Petersburg Audubon Society. "If you have that many people, pretty soon you are going to have an island full of poop."

The debate is part of an ongoing effort to balance the needs of the birds who nest on Shell Key against the desires of daytrippers who enjoy visiting the island, which is accessible only by boat.

County officials said they want the island to remain open to visitors but are also considering strengthening restrictions on the preserve in order to help resuscitate Shell Key's declining bird population.

In coming months, the county will seek comment from residents on Shell Key's future and draft a management plan that could include new regulations.

It is very likely that within the next six months overnight guests and their furry companions may no longer be welcome at Shell Key, said Bruce Rinker, director of the county division of environmental lands, which manages the preserve.

"We hope people don't see this as a boaters vs. birders issue because it is not," he said. The birds, "just will not be able to survive much longer unless we do something positive and responsible."

But some boaters say they would fight the possibility of restrictions.

"To take a natural place and forbid people from camping here, well, this is an opportunity for our kids to experience that," said Valerie Fournier, who recently spent the weekend camping on the island with her family and friends.

"I would be writing my congressman," if the restrictions were imposed, said her husband, Charlie Fournier.

There are no trash cans or bathrooms at Shell Key, in part to keep the island undeveloped.

The result is campers often relieve themselves along the shore, leaving behind strips of soiled toilet paper.

Other than the obvious ick-factor, environmentalists also have expressed concern that this is a potential health hazard for island visitors.

Dogs also present a danger to the birds who use the island as a nesting area, they said.

In the past two years, campers have been fined for public drinking and unruly behavior, particularly during the summer holidays.

On a recent weekday, the shore was nearly pristine, but weekend trekkers did leave a few remnants behind: candy wrappers, orange peels, soda cans, fishing wires and human and dog feces dotted small pockets of sand on the island.

Conservationist said this does not represent an average visit to the island. In their cleanup work, they said they have seen mounds of beer bottles, human feces, fishing wire, which is especially dangerous to the birds, and even a shopping cart.

"These folks are going out there and literally using it as their personal little island paradise," said Shandell Gelmini, a frequent volunteer at Shell Key who is considering starting a nonprofit group aimed at preserving the island.

Tough restrictions at Shell Key would be a far cry from the laissez-faire system now employed.

After the county took over management of the barrier island from the state in 2000, officials tried to make the land more hospitable to visitors. Pets are allowed at Shell Key, though signs throughout the island vaguely warn visitors to "control" their animal.

Boaters were also allowed to drink alcohol as long as they remained off land.

With a steady rise in visitors, the county has grown increasingly concerned about the effect humans were having on the bird nesting area. In recent years, the population of red knots, willets and marbled godwits has shown considerable decline on the island.

But the Fourniers say campers, who are generally responsible, are just an easy scapegoat.

For the trip, they brought along a portable toilet and shower, as well as their friend's dog, a greyhound mix that walked freely around the campgrounds on a recent morning. They also had a bottle of Jim Beam whiskey, but said they had kept it closed and were following the law.

They planned to bury the waste collected in the toilet when they left and would be careful to take all their trash with them, they said.

"It would be a shame if you couldn't camp here anymore," said Charlie Fournier. "There has to be some other way."

Cristina Silva can be reached at 727 893-8846 or

By the numbers

Shell Key

  • 180 Acres that make up Shell Key, half of which is used as a bird sanctuary.
  • 32,421 Individual birds counted on the island in fall 2001.
  • 15,600 Individual birds counted on the island in fall 2005.
  • [Last modified April 4, 2007, 12:13:40]

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