Sanctuary eyes law enforcement changes

Wednesday, August 17, 2016


Free Press Staff

MARATHON — State and federal agencies have reached a tentative agreement on law enforcement presence in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which calls for a significant decrease in funding.

The sanctuary and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission had been working on a new agreement for months.

The current agreement has expired and the federal government is not funding six sanctuary law enforcement officers and took out of service about a half dozen vessels, including the $2million Peter Gladding law enforcement boat that used to patrol the most remote and environmentally sensitive areas of the sanctuary including the Tortugas Ecological Reserve.

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council discussed the proposed agreement when it met last week in Marathon. The agreement should be finalized in the coming weeks.

Under a proposed agreement, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would no longer maintain its own six law enforcement officers using sanctuary-owned boats and vehicles, but instead contract with the FWC.

The proposed agreement would result in NOAA reducing the amount of funding on law enforcement operations in the Keys from roughly $1 million a year when including the maintenance of boats, to about $325,000, which includes overtime for FWC officers. Also, the FWC would use its own vessels and vehicles.

The reduction in funding drew strong concern among Sanctuary Advisory Council members, who for years have called for more funding for law enforcement.

“I spend a lot of time on the water, and I already don’t see a lot of law enforcement officers,” Key West Mayor Craig Cates said. “We don’t have enough law enforcement officers already.”

Commercial angler Mimi Stafford added that boats “tied up at the dock don’t get much law enforcement done.”

“This is very concerning,” Stafford said. “If the sanctuary is going to be effective, we have to have people in the field.”

However, acting sanctuary Superintendent Ed Lindelof, Office of National Marine Sanctuary Sanctuaries acting Director John Armor and FWC Capt. Mits Mravic remained confident the agreement will provide necessary marine law enforcement coverage in the Keys.

The work would mostly be done by the 56 FWC law enforcement positions in the Keys.

Law enforcement teams could be brought in from outside the Keys for special details, added Tracy Dunn, with NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement. Officers from areas as far away as Naples have expressed interest in working overtime to patrol sanctuary jurisdictions such as the Tortugas Ecological Reserve, Mravic said.

The overtime would be covered by the $325,000, Lindelof said.

Also, Lindel of contended sanctuary vessels could be used by the sanctuary’s Team Ocean for outreach and to educate the public on regulations and the sanctuary and FWC can save the use of the “guns and badges for the bad guys.”

He added that the vessels can be used not only for outreach, but for research. “The smaller vessels will be put to good use very shortly,” Lindelof said. “We need to see how it works out.”

Also last week, Armor and Lindelof told the Sanctuary Advisory Council that the environmental impact statement for proposed amendments to the sanctuary’s management plan should be released for public comment in early 2017.

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