Despite calls for the removal of crocodiles from areas where people live in the Keys, they’re not going anywhere.
Crocs are reclaiming their historical habitat, and the carefree days of letting kids and pets swim in the canals of the Upper Keys are over — and they're not coming back, state wildlife officials have told Islamorada council members.
"Times are changing, and this is one of those things we're going to have to change and bend to," said Lt. Keith Barcomb, an officer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The American saltwater crocodile was once an endangered species. But its numbers rebounded heartily since dwindling to the hundreds in the 1970s. Now there are anywhere from 1,500 to more than 2,000 American crocodiles, most living from South Miami-Dade to Islamorada.
There are some reports of crocs being found as far south as Big Pine Key, and one has taken residence in a canal near Sombrero Beach in Marathon.
Still, Lindsey Hord, a wildlife commission biologist, said people should be much more worried about their children drowning than being attacked by a crocodile. The reptiles have not been known to be aggressive to people, unlike their relatives around the globe, like the Nile crocodile, or even their cousins here, the much more abundant Florida alligator.
"There has never been a fatality from an American crocodile, but six people drowned in Monroe County last year. We have to keep these things in perspective," Hord said.
That's little comfort to Islamorada Mayor Michael Reckwerdt, who asked the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to come to last week's council meeting. Reckwerdt, 45, grew up in South Florida. He said until recently, there weren't any crocs in Islamorada, and now there are so many that he no longer lets his children swim in the water surrounding his business, Robbie's Marina on Lower Matecumbe Key.
"We're talking about a complete change in the way of life for us," Reckwerdt said.
Reckwerdt and other council members wanted Hord to explain what could be done to remove larger crocodiles from areas where people frequently swim, fish and recreate.
The answer? Nothing.
American saltwater crocodiles are considered threatened, so agency officers will not kill nuisance crocs like they do nuisance alligators in other parts of the state. Fish and Wildlife will occasionally remove crocs they perceive as a problem, but the animals usually find their way back.
Hord said people in the Upper Keys should actually expect to see more of them as the protected species' population keeps growing.
There has never been a recorded attack by an American saltwater crocodile on a human, according to the agency. But what has Village Council members and other residents concerned is a fatal attack on a 65-pound dog in Key Largo by a crocodile in March.
Village Council members, including Reckwerdt and Councilman David Purdo, said they don't want to wait until a human gets attacked to do something. "At what point do we stop this," Purdo asked Hord.
Hord maintained that the only thing people can do is become more educated about crocodiles and to accept that they are here to stay. People should keep their pets and small children away from the water in areas crocs are known to be. If you live on the water, you might want to build a fence around your property to keep them out, Hord said.
Mark Parry, a U.S. Parks Service biologist, agreed, but said the concern is being overblown. Potentially dangerous wildlife abounds in Florida and always has. The key, he said, is to always be aware of your surroundings.
Parry, who came to the May 24 meeting unofficially, said there have been large crocodiles in the Flamingo area of Everglades National Park for years with no conflicts with humans. He also noted that while female crocodiles lay 30 to 40 eggs, only about 2 to 4 percent of the hatchlings survive.
"You've got to watch the water for crocodiles, alligators, poisonous snakes” anywhere in the state, he said. "But you don't have to be paranoid."