With eight boating fatalities in Miami-Dade this year — four of them in a single night July 4 — boaters clamored for tougher laws and heightened enforcement in time for the next big Biscayne Bay boat bash: Wednesday night’s New Year’s Eve fireworks display off downtown Miami’s Bayfront Park.
In response, the Coast Guard has established a “regulated navigation area” from 11 p.m. Wednesday to 1 a.m. Thursday, restricting speeds to 15 knots or less from the Julia Tuttle Causeway south past Deering Bay marina. Vessels also will be prohibited within a 280-yard radius of the fireworks barge.
And while there won’t be a full-out BUI (boating under the influence) task force blanketing the bay, marine law enforcement officers from federal, state, county and municipal agencies will be ready to arrest drunken and reckless boaters — many of whom gather to party at several shallow-water sandbars before heading to the fireworks. The most popular hang-outs are Mashta Flats off Key Biscayne, Elliott Key in Biscayne National Park, and just west of Haulover Inlet.
“We’re not going to be in our ‘super’ mode,” said Key Biscayne Police Chief Charles Press, president of the Miami-Dade Chiefs of Police Association. “We’ll all be out there ensuring we’re protecting our local areas. Our extra support will be the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Coast Guard.”
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Press has become the region’s leading advocate for boating safety after his adult daughter, Danielle, nearly lost her leg in a boat strike last year on the Mashta Flats.
Press has pleaded with the FWC to exclude motorboats from 12 acres of the flats under village jurisdiction and allow only swimmers, sailboats and paddlecraft to ply those waters. Besides the safety hazard, he said, boats are causing environmental problems by destroying sea grass with their propellers.
Press said the FWC turned down the no-motor proposal, so now he’s pursuing permits with the Department of Environmental Protection and Miami-Dade County to erect bird stakes on the flats, as has already been done in other parts of Biscayne Bay. Birds alight on the tall, thin stakes and fertilize the grass flats with their poop. If placed close enough together, the stakes discourage boater intrusion.
“If we get that, it’s a huge start,” Press said. “It sends a clear message to the state of Florida that we need their partnership to move this forward.”
On another front, Press and Miami-Dade police Lt. John Ramos, head of the marine unit, are pushing the county to adopt an ordinance limiting the number of boats that can be tied together in the bay to five, with a minimum distance of 100 feet between those lines of boats. A similar rule already is in effect in Biscayne National Park, but not the entire bay.
Ramos said limiting those “raft-ups” enables law enforcement and rescue crews to respond quickly to emergencies. He cited the case of a man who died last June after being struck by the propeller of a boat operated by local celebrity DJ Laz (real name: Lazaro Mendez) on the Mashta Flats.
“There was no way for any law enforcement or fire-rescue to get to where he was,” Ramos said. “Fire-rescue had to walk across the sandbar to get the body out.”
Ramos said the county’s legal staff is reviewing the ordinance and that it could go before the commission in February.
Calls by Press and others in the boating community for mandatory education for all boaters, not just those born after Jan. 1, 1988, and tougher DUI penalties have not gained much traction so far at the state level.
But Press is far from giving up, and he’s taking things one step at a time.
“I truly believe the state will recognize how serious we are in policing ourselves,” Press said. “The only thing we’re trying to do is to make it safer and to make the insanity go away.”