Shell Key unified in one sense

Two islands came together. The same can't be said about bird advocates and partying boaters.

By NICK JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer
Published September 30, 2007

For years the main island of the Shell Key Preserve has been increasing in size, making it a more popular destination for both nesting shore birds and recreational boaters.

Management of the preserve has also been evolving over the years in an attempt to control the human impact there.

The next step for the preserve may come Tuesday, when the County Commission is scheduled to vote on the adoption of the 2007 Shell Key Preserve Management Plan.

"Shell Key has changed tremendously over the past two decades," said Robert Weisberg, a professor of the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "Change is actually the norm for these islands."

The island called Shell Key was once two smaller islands separated by the Pass-a-Grille Channel. Over the years, the two islands grew and shifted, possibly as a result of dredging in the channel north of them, Weisberg explained.

In the mid 1990s, the channel between them closed and the Shell Key most people are familiar with was created.

The current management plan bans the consumption of alcohol on the island, but many boaters get around the rule by drinking in the shallows surrounding it. Some have also gotten used to letting their dogs romp on and around the island.

The drafted 2007 plan would ban alcohol and dogs from the entire preserve, including the waterways.

The Department of Environmental Management proposes that this is the next step to preserve the natural habitat there.

Ann Paul, the regional coordinator for the Audubon Society of Florida, said the island had been an important habitat for shore nesting birds for at least 20 years.

"These birds are sort of inherently limited in what they will accept as appropriate nesting sites," she said, explaining that they prefer the same sandy beaches that people are also drawn to. "So many places that these species have used in the past are no longer available."

Development along the area's beaches has left these birds with few choices, and the same natural movement of sediment that made Shell Key a prime spot for nesting has made other spots impossible.

"Last year no birds nested on Passage Key because it's completely eroded," Paul said, adding that the island has come and gone multiple times since it became a bird reservation area in 1905.

Weisberg, the marine science professor, also pointed out that Egmont Key once had a bird nesting area, but that part of the island has eroded.

"It probably does make sense to try to protect one of the last places left in this overdeveloped county that may be a viable bird habitat," he said.

What lease says

The current management plan was adopted in 2000, when the county leased the preserve from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Shell Key was already a popular destination on weekends and holidays and the DEP lacked the manpower necessary to patrol it.

The lease to the county stipulates that the preserve be managed only for the conservation and protection of the resources there and compatible public use.

"Prior to 2000 there was not a lot of data available on how to proceed, so I think the county made a compromise," Bruce Rinker, director of the county's environmental lands division, said.

He said he thinks the current plan was merely an attempt to make everyone happy, a deviation from the norm.

"In our preserves and management areas we don't allow pets and we don't allow the consumption of alcohol," he said.

Boaters' thoughts

But many boaters still feel slighted by the changes and think the current regulations on the island are sufficient.

Dick Granger, a St. Petersburg business owner and recreational boater, was so upset by the proposed changes that he recently started the Recreational Boaters of Florida, a boaters rights group.

Granger said he has been going to Shell Key for nearly 20 years and that boaters have been going there for decades and didn't have any say in the new plan.

"I think the dogs being banned is a foil to get a bunch of boaters out of there, and the same thing for the drinking," he said.

Scientists' view

Boaters aside, the drafted plan has gained the overwhelming support of the scientific community and Pinellas County staff.

Since 2000 the county has conducted long-term monitoring efforts on the preserve.

"We have direct evidence that both dogs and people have disturbed both nesting birds and birds that are there in winter months," said Steve Harper, research director for the environmental lands division.

Harper said a number of species had been on the decline in the preserve and the proposed changes may help turn things around.

"That's the intent," he said. "Nothing is for sure in this world, but in our expert opinion that's the best step to help protect the natural resources of Shell Key."

Nick Johnson can be reached at nickjohnson@sptimes.com or 893-8361.


If you go

Commissioners will vote on the 2007 Shell Key Management Plan at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at Commission Chambers at 315 Court St. in Clearwater.

By the numbers

Pinellas County Sheriff's Office statistics at Shell Key from June 2006 to June 2007.

109 arrests

322 ordinance violation citations

3 OUIs (operating under the influence)

288 boating citations