Miami commissioners to decide if critical rookery is worth protecting

Don’t Trash Our Treasure: Activists encourage residents to join their effort to protect vulnerable Mangrove Island on Biscayne Bay

MIAMI – An island in Biscayne Bay’s northern basin that is home to marine birds is at risk because of increased boating activity, and Miami commissioners meeting on Thursday are set to decide whether or not to protect it.

Mangrove Island is just across from Morningside Park. The area around it is a slow-speed zone, but environmental advocates say there are plenty of speeders on boats and personal watercrafts who are regularly disturbing the habitat.

“This whole area is a slow-speed zone minimum wake, and every single day we see jet skis running through here,” said Laura Reynolds, the vice president of Friends of Biscayne Bay.

Reynolds says a spike in aggressive motorized boating has already taken a toll on nearby Bird Key which has been abandoned.

“In 2019 we saw the nesting cease on this island,” says Reynolds, “and it hasn’t been documented since.”

It appears that those birds have now moved to Mangrove Island. In fact, The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission has deemed it an official rookery. It used to be peaceful here, but things changed after the pandemic.

Florida now has a record-breaking over a million registered vessels, and this critical habitat is now experiencing an increase in speeding boats and jet skies.

Observers like Morningside resident Sandy Moise have been sounding the alarm for months. It’s not just the speeding boats and jetskies, but people who regularly fish there and recklessly abandon their lines and gear causing death traps.

“There were five brown pelicans that perished within one month — all tangled in the nest, hanging in the rookery,” Moise said.

Most recently, our Local 10 News crew observed two carcasses.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the birds have been killed and I’ve been getting photographs and it’s because there’s a lot of action here, especially during the weekend,” said Miami Commissioner Sabina Covo, who has been stepping up to protect the rookery.

In July, she successfully sponsored a resolution to get the city manager to work with The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to put up signs to keep people out and identify the habitat as a critical nesting ground.

The signs went up in September.

“People are just ignoring the signs,” said scientist Brian Rapoza, author of “Birding Florida.”

Rapoza fears the lack of policing has put this rookery in danger of collapsing and could leave the cormorants, the brown pelicans, and the magnificent frigatebirds with nowhere else to nest.

“These birds are very sensitive to disturbance,” Rapoza said. “If boaters are going too fast, if fishermen are coming in here, and getting too close, the birds are going to stop using this island. Eventually, they’re going to stop using the bay.”

Covo is now sponsoring a new resolution to prohibit any motorized water activity within 500 feet of the island. She also wants to make the channel east of the rookery an idle speed zone. It is in fact a manatee protection zone.

“We have manatees going under us while we have speeding boats ripping through a manatee protection zone,” said Albert Gomez, a member of the advisory committee for the Biscayne Bay Marine Health Coalition.

Activists like Gomez are fired up.

“This critical wildlife needs to be protected as a bank, literally as a bank, for our future community for our kids, kids. We’re not going to have anything for them to look at other than a pond of water and dead water below them,” Gomez said.

Lauren Jonaitis is the senior conservation director of the Tropical Audubon Society.

“You should care because we’re all connected and a lot of the times when you see birds, and you’re seeing that wildlife, that means that the ecosystem is healthy, and it’s in place,” Jonaitis said.

The health of Biscayne Bay is the lynchpin to our prosperity. In fact, a recent study found that Biscayne Bay contributes about $64 billion to the local economy. For Reynolds and other advocates, losing this rookery is a losing proposition for all Miami-Dade.

“This is our Central Park. This is our blue heart and without it, we can’t survive,” Reynolds said.

CALL TO ACTION: “Urge City of Miami to Protect Biscayne Bay Nesting Rookery”

Activists plan to be at City Hall and are encouraging residents to sign up for public comments. For more information, visit this page. To download the meeting’s agenda, visit this page.

About the Author:

Louis Aguirre is an Emmy-award winning journalist who anchors weekday newscasts and serves as WPLG Local 10’s Environmental Advocate.