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Shell Key may get restrictions

By CRISTINA SILVA
Published April 30, 2007


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New regulations at Shell Key Island could restrict boating, overnight camping, dogs and alcohol use at the bird preserve, according to the county Department of Environmental Management.

The restrictions would protect the island from irresponsible boaters and day-trippers who have turned Shell Key into a wild getaway, putting the birds there at risk, county officials said.

The county's intent to update Shell Key's management plan by July has triggered an angry debate between bird lovers and boaters over whether preserving the island as a bird habitat means restricting human access at the beach.

More than 150 people attended a meeting Wednesday night on Shell Key in Tierra Verde.

Al Davis, a Gulfport boater, agreed that visitors at Shell Key had become too rowdy, but protested increased restrictions. "The taxpayers are running out of places to go where they can see the water, let alone get in it, " he said.

County officials said they do not intend to turn the island into a rookery.

"We are not going to put up a fence around Shell Key, " William Davis, director of the Department of Environmental Management, assured boaters and campers during the meeting.

Shell Key Preserve covers 1, 755 acres near Fort De Soto Park. Shell Key Island is 180 acres, more than half of which is reserved specifically for thousands of protected migrating and wintering shore and sea birds during the fall, winter and spring. American oystercatchers, black skimmers and least terns are among the birds that roost there.

Some of the birds are endangered or face extinction, specifically the red knot, which could be extinct by 2010, said Nancy Douglas, a biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. She cited studies showing declining red knot populations in nesting areas in South America.

"We may hold the key to survival for this entire species, " she said.

But the birds are threatened by a slew of thoughtless visitors, who leave their trash behind and treat the preserve like a free-for-all, county officials said.

Crime at the island, including rape, battery and assault, has rapidly increased in recent years, said Sgt. Glenn Wilson, a spokesman for the Environmental Lands Unit of the Sheriff's Office.

There were 100 offenses reported at Shell Key when the county first started issuing fines in 2003. Last year, there were 500, Wilson said. This compares to fewer than 100 offenses reported at Fort De Soto Park, he said.

Dogs are already prohibited on the island during nesting season. Liquor is banned year-round at Shell Key, but visitors often get around this rule by drinking in the water along the shore, Wilson said.

"We have a little bit of a crime spree going on, " he said.

Boaters and camping enthusiasts argued they should not be punished because some people have acted questionably on the island and called for the county to consider educating residents about the birds before approving new restrictions. Shell Key, an undeveloped barrier island, is one of the last places in the county where nature enthusiasts can dock their boats, they said.

"Every recreational boater I know loves the birds, too ..., " said Dave Bernard, a Madeira Beach resident who has been boating at Shell Key for 50 years. "We aren't bad people. We don't all get drunk and beat each other up."

But environmentalists say that a few boaters promising to be responsible isn't enough to ensure the safety of the birds.

"Shell Key can't be a dumping ground anymore, " said Ann Paul, the Tampa Bay regional coordinator for Audubon of Florida. "One thing we know for sure, we are always going to have people visiting Shell Key, but are we going to have red knots?"

Cristina Silva can be reached at 727 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

Fast Facts:

Did you know?

- Shell Key is a 180-acre barrier island that's about 2.5 miles long.

- Access to Shell Key is by boat only, although it may occasionally be accessed by swimmers.

- The island is part of the Shell Key Preserve. Most of the land in the preserve is publicly owned. A large portion of the property is owned by the state and was acquired in 1845 when Florida became a state. The state-owned areas are leased to Pinellas County or placed under management agreement.

- The remaining public property belongs to Pinellas County and was acquired with endangered-lands funding.

Source: Pinellas County

[Last modified April 29, 2007, 21:12:56]


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