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Dock puts Cayo Costa management plan on hold

By PAULETTE LeBLANC / pleblanc@breezenewspapers.com - | Jun 8, 2021

PHOTO PROVIDED South dock situated on the east shoreline of Cayo Costa.

Whether Cayo Costa State Park visitors will continue to be able to access the barrier island’s south side via ferry remains in limbo.

A vote before the Acquisition and Restoration Council that had been set for June 11 in Tallahassee has been postponed while the Florida Department of Environmental Protection considers comments concerning its proposed new management plan, which some say should include a measure to ban commercial vessels from using the dock at the narrow south end of the island known as the Narrows, causing damage to existing marine life and seagrass beds.

“Since the initial drafts of the park’s Unit Management Plan were released for review, the department has received several comments from stakeholders,” FDEP Deputy Press Secretary Alexandra Kutcha said. “The department is taking additional time to evaluate those comments and ensure concerns are appropriately addressed in the park’s Unit Management Plan.”

At issue is whether a concessionaire contract allowing commercial ferry service to the south dock should continue.

Captiva Cruises, which was awarded the contract to be official concessionaire to Cayo Costa State Park in 2013, says its service is environmentally safe and was awarded the contract as part of the state’s goal to increase public access to the island, which is accessible only by boat.

PHOTO PROVIDED Trail leading from the south dock, across Cayo Costa, to the west shore.

A local environmental group says otherwise and is looking to stop commercial access to the dock.

According to Save Cayo Costa advocate Margi Nanney, a number of parcels were purchased on the island in the 1970s with Environmentally Endangered Land funds in an attempt to preserve the island for the state park. When Hurricane Charley tore through the island in 2004, the dock utilized by the public was destroyed. Nanney says in 2016 a tiny dock was added and added improperly, an allegation Captiva Cruises says is incorrect.

“We’ve been fighting this since 2016,” Nanney said. “We were shocked to find out they’ve been allowing deeper than usual draft boats to go back in there. It used to be fishing boats, and the people who lived back there — just small six-pack family type boats and fishermen that used those waters to fish.”

According to Nanney, large twin-engine commercial boats bring people from all over surrounding areas to the dock at the Narrows, causing damage. She emphasized the importance of seagrass beds to marine communities, as well as that the Pine Island Aquatic Preserve is home to, not only manatees, but migrating fish.

“There’s also a deep hole where they park. They have to use their engines to get in and out in low tide. They run all throughout the year, even in the winter when the tides are very low. The issue is not people coming to Cayo Costa at all,” she said, adding that the economy depends largely on island tourism. “We understand that and the park is concerned about revenue, but not at the expense of the resources and these resources are being impacted.”

PHOTO PROVIDED Ferry vessel heading to Cayo Costa.

Save Cayo Costa has provided necessary documentation to the state, Nanney said, proving that the best use of the Narrows would be such things as private boats, paddlers and kayakers.

This would have less impact on a 450-foot wide piece of land, she said. The north end, which is a mile wide, is far more equipped to handle large groups, having facilities such as restrooms.

Captiva Cruises says it is providing the ferry service to the park responsibly.

“We are the only vessel authorized to use the dock at the Narrows,” co-owner Bob Rando said. “Captiva Cruises is very responsible in the way we treat the environment. We offer cruises to Cayo Costa State Park and what we do there is environmentally safe and sound. We bring passengers to the beach and we educate them on the delicate ecosystems of the island. We instruct them as to where to go and not go on the island. We know the island is very environmentally sensitive in certain areas and when we bring passengers and visitors to the park, we bring them in a responsible way.”

The dock in question was allowed by the state, he said, adding the rebuild of the south dock was intended to improve ferry service and increase passenger access to the island as part of the mission in its DEP contract.

A permit was issued, according to DEP permitted regulations, to reconstruct the state dock and Innovative Marine was hired by Captiva Cruises to do that after being selected as the concessionaire.

Rando describes the concessionaire’s ongoing relationship with the island of Cayo Costa as one of loving stewardship, adding that environmental stewardship is itself one of the cornerstones of the cruise line’s business, saying it offers eco-tourism tours as a part of its mission to be environmentally sound and responsible.

“We know that we’re operating in a very fragile environment, and we do it responsibly,” Rando said. “Our cruises are entertaining, but first they’re educational.”

He said Captiva Cruises has no influence on the FDEP or its decision or policy-making process. The company was unaware of the issue until it gained media attention or that potential harm to the Narrows was a proposed meeting agenda item of the Acquisition and Restoration Council.

“Cayo Costa is a valuable resource that should be enjoyed by visitors. We love bringing people there,” Rando said. “There’s nothing like it.”

Nanney, meanwhile, said she hopes state officials will listen to their plea and not use the postponement to allow the issue to drag on indefinitely.

“This has devastating effects for crab fishermen, and people who fish in general,” she said.

“This effort with the Save Cayo Costa group has really grown into a grassroots support for protecting all the aquatic preserves, turtle nesting areas and even shorebirds,” Nanney continued. “There used to be snowy plovers, that are highly endangered, that would nest in those areas on the narrow part of the island — they’re just not there anymore. I am very concerned and there are a number of us who have come together and we’re growing more and more, hoping the state will come to its senses.”