Like the rest of its counterparts around the country, Biscayne National Park is closed because of the federal government shutdown — but not if you want to fish, boat through on your way somewhere else, or seek shelter in a storm.
But the thousands of powerboaters who normally gather in park waters over the upcoming Columbus Day weekend to anchor, raft, play music, dance and drink will not be welcome.
Ahead of the busiest Friday through Monday of the year in Miami’s backyard underwater park, Superintendent Brian Carlstrom said park rangers — backed up by federal, state and local law enforcement officers — will ask boaters who stop and hang out to leave. Diving and snorkeling also are prohibited.
“If folks start showing up, we’ll encourage them to go someplace else,” Carlstrom said. “We’ll be monitoring the area around Elliott Key, where they raft up very closely. If you don’t leave, you are subject to fines. Bottom line: We don’t want people going out there hurting themselves or others as a result of theirs or others’ negligence.”
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Carlstrom said officers will be patrolling the waters and stationed at Black Point and Homestead Bayfront marinas, which are gateways to the park, to inform boaters that the park is closed. He declined to say how many officers would be deployed to handle the anticipated crowds.
Even before the federal shutdown on Oct. 1, Biscayne National Park tried to discourage Columbus Day weekend revelry. The park issued a press release on Sept. 18 urging boaters to “reconsider” gathering during “the most dangerous boating weekend in the park.” Officials cited six deaths and numerous injuries over the past decade, plus damage to park resources from vessel groundings and litter. Violators of boating under the influence and other laws could face fines of more than $5,000 and up to six months in jail, officials warned.
Boaters turned away from the park this weekend could end up at other popular gathering spots to the north, including “Nixon Beach” or Mashta Point — a sandbar near Key Biscayne — or Monument Island in Molloy Channel off Miami Beach. Spokesmen for the U.S. Coast Guard and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said they would be ready if that happens.
“We have plenty of crews and plenty of boats to get the job done,” said Coast Guard Chief Ryan Doss.
Added FWC officer Jorge Pino: “We’re going to have an adequate number of officers out there with whatever may arise with regard to boating safety.”
Meanwhile, the 2013 Columbus Day Regatta, a long-running sailboat race with some 80 competitors, will start as scheduled Saturday morning in Biscayne Bay, according to regatta chairman Mark Pincus.
“The regatta does not go to the park, so it is not affected by the closure,” Pincus said.
He added the only difficulties might be heavy traffic from powerboaters exiting the park wandering onto the course while sailboats are racing.
Since the federal shutdown, several fishing guides who regularly escort their customers to catch bonefish, permit and other species in the park report no interference from rangers.
“I haven’t seen law enforcement,” captain Bob Branham said. But he said he’s worried his business could suffer if the government shutdown goes on much longer.
Said Branham: “The more stories that get out about it, the more people just might not come.”