Boaters are severely damaging the seagrass in the Mashta Flats, a pivotal part of the bay off Key Biscayne that provides food and shelter for marine life, acts as a buffer against land erosion and protects the mainland from storms.
That was the conclusion of a team of marine biologists and graduate research assistants from the University of Miami, who presented their findings Tuesday at the Key Biscayne Village Council meeting.
“Significant damage is being done,” said Diego Lirman, an associate professor of marine biology and fisheries at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.
Lirman showed the council members high-resolution seagrass images that revealed 543 scars from propellers, anchors and hulls across the flat’s shallow coastal floor.
“This area still has a vibrant seagrass community but has experienced heavy damage, mainly caused by boats trying to cut across the flats on their way in and out of the channel adjacent to the bank,” Lirman said. “They don’t need to cut across the flats; they’re just trying to save time.”
Lirman’s group was charged with providing “some guidance on a fragile ecosystem,” said Melissa McCaughan White, executive director of the Key Biscayne Community Foundation, which along with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and The Village of Key Biscayne, sponsored the project, called the Key Biscayne Citizen Science Project.
The project is designed “to help the public make informed decisions of why it's important to take care of natural resources,” White said.
About 20 percent of the 83 acres that comprise the Mashta Flats, which is part of the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve, are found within Key Biscayne’s jurisdiction. The study showed that seagrass covers nearly 48 percent of Key Biscayne’s area of the flat.
There is no law preventing boats from being in the Mashta Flats, said Jorge Pino, a spokesman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Often, especially on weekends and holidays, according to the researchers’ assessment, “up to 100 boats at a time anchor or simply run aground on the seagrass beds, causing severe physical damage to the biological communities that can take decades to recover,” the UM report said.
“If it can recover at all,” Lirman said.
Lirman, along with his research team — UM graduate students Crawford Drury, Stephanie Schopmeyer and Rolando Santos — said a comprehensive seagrass protection and restoration program for Mashta Flats would be needed “to maintain natural resources for future generations.”
Their recommendations consisted of allowing access the flat to kayaks, canoes and paddleboards while restricting boating and walking access. The UM researchers proposed a multiple-use zoning system to prevent boating and walking access in the areas of Mashta Flats that have SAV (submerged aquatic vegetation, that is, seagrass plus macroalgae) to prevent further damage.
“A clear demarcation of this protected area should be implemented to prevent boats from cutting across the flats on the way in and out of the channel,” the report said. Boaters and people walking could still access parts of the flats that are devoid of seagrass.
The researchers also recommended educating beachgoers, boaters and the general public on how to protect the flat, as well as organizing trash clean-up and restoration initiatives.
For restoration, the researchers recommendederecting bird stakes so the birds would defecate into the shallow water. The phosphorus in their feces would then fertilize the area, aiding in “growth of seagrass and enhancing the recruitment of macroalgae and seagrasses into bare spots,” according to the UM team.
The Key Biscayne Community Foundation, on behalf of the Citizen Science Project, has sent out two grant proposals to the National Fishery and Wildlife Foundation and Funders‘ Network, to help pay for the costs for protecting and restoring the seagrass.
“We do not have a budget for this and it will depend on many factors such as what methods of demarcation are used, what methods of seagrass restoration are used, etc.,” Lirman said. “That is for the village to cost out.”
How the council plans to move forward with preservation and restoration efforts has yet to be decided. Key Biscayne Mayor Frank Caplan said in a telephone interview that he wants to implement Lirman's recommendations of protecting and restoring the seagrass. He said he's already begun the permit application process for erecting the bird roosting stakes in the areas of the flats where seagrass scarring is widespread.
In other business, the council:
• Gave a first reading of an ordinance that would allow residents not to register their house, condominium and business alarms with Key Biscayne’s Police Department. Police Chief Charles Press said he does not want residents to be burdened with the fees associated with registering with them nor the fines and penalties for false alarms, nor does the police department have the resources to register every alarm.
He said on average only three to four false alarms go off weekly. The council voted unanimously to have a second reading; they will also vote on whether to keep or dismiss the noise ordinance penalties associated with false alarms.
• Shot down an ordinance to create a Citizens Needs Assessment Survey Committee in a 5-2 vote. The opponents said it was their job to address the concerns of the residents. Council member James Taintor and mayor Caplan were in favor of the ordinance.
• Voted 5-2 to move forward with Vice Mayor Michael Davey’s request to hire an appraiser for the land under the Key Biscayne Beach Club. “Land gets more expensive here every year. I want it to benefit the residents of Key Biscayne,” Davey said. Council members Michael Kelly and Ed London opposed it due to concerns over spending.
• Moved to a second reading a unanimous decision to create an education advisory board. The second reading will be March 11.
• Scheduled an April 15 workshop to discuss the park uses at 530 Crandon Blvd. Council member Michael Kelly told Ed Stone, president of the ASK Club (Active Seniors on the Key), which has been pushing for a senior cultural center, that “at 530 it's not going to happen — get your constituents behind other sites.” The council will vote on the matter April 22.