The Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge (CKNWR or Refuge) is exploring a seasonal closure of SnakeKey’s nearshore waters out to 100 yards to protect nesting birds from 1 March to 30 June, mirroring the former closure at Seahorse Key.
A public notification process will gather input on the proposed closure for 2018.
Snake Key is an island off of the City of Cedar Key in the Gulf of Mexico, and is part of the CKNWR established in 1929. The 800-acre Refuge is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for wildlife and wildlife-oriented outdoor recreation. The primary purpose of the Refuge is to serve as breeding grounds for colonial-nesting marine birds. Snake Key is approximately 32.5 acres and is completely surrounded by shallow water, and is mostly closed to the public except for the small beach. The island is composed of two islands divided by a very narrow (~25 foot) channel, but is considered one landmass.
Refuge staff and partners have been assessing nesting bird use of Snake Key for 2 1/2 years, ever since the nesting birds catastrophically abandoned the nearby Seahorse Key rookery in April 2015. To date the birds have not returned to Seahorse Key with a significant number having established nests on Snake Key, 2 miles to the east. At the time of abandonment, the Seahorse Key rookery was the largest wading bird rookery on the Florida Gulf Coast, with 10,000+ nesting pairs, including several federally and State of Florida-listed species. The Snake Key rookery encompasses approximately 3,000 nesting pairs of the same assemblage of wading bird species.
The Refuge and our partners have documented disturbance of nesting birds by boaters accessing the area around Snake Key and those passing through its narrow channel. We are therefore proposing a 100-yard buffer seasonally-closed-to-public-access area around Snake Key from 1 March to 30 June. The proposed closure amounts to approximately 54 acres of shallow waters and one small sand beach.
The USFWS is charged with the authority to protect wildlife including nesting bird colonies under a number of federal statutes (50 CFR, Part 20 of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act; 50 CFR, 27.51a, and 16 USC, 668dd of the National Wildlife Improvement Act). For many years the Refuge and the State of Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have partnered to protect the nesting bird colony on Seahorse Key from disturbance by boaters. The State of Florida supported the USFWS with an authorization to publically close these State waters under a Management Agreement for Sovereign Submerged Lands. By means of this seasonal closure around Seahorse Key we have enforced a four-month, 100-yard closure from 1 March to 30 June for a number of years. This past April (2017), two years after the nesting birds abandoned Seahorse Key and had not returned, the Refuge implemented a conditional temporary opening of the seasonally-closed area surrounding Seahorse Key. We intend to continue with the conditional opening at Seahorse Key, but should the birds return to nest, the Refuge would again restrict public access to these waters.
The Refuge will be putting forth public notifications in the near future and directly contacting interested parties. The Refuge staff will gladly meet with individuals or groups to discuss this proposed closure. If you would like to have such contact, please call the numbers below.
Contact: Andrew G. Gude, Lower Suwannee & Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge
(office 352.493.0238 extension 224; cell 703.622.3896)
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