Passage Key attracts boaters, nudists, refuge violators

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Boaters linger and bird-watch Aug. 5 at Passage Key.
Passage Key attracts flocks of royal terns. Islander Photo: Courtesy FWS
Beachgoers intrude on the beach Aug. 5 just feet away from the birds taking refuge in a large tidal pool at Passage Key and a posted sign that the island is a national wildlife refuge and bird sanctuary — closed to people and dogs. Islander Photos: Kathy Prucnell
People walk the beach at Passage Key — closed to the public — as birds wade nearby in the waters.

Shifting are the sands of time.

Passage Key — a landmark for early Spanish and British explorers and long known as a destination for nudists — is a national wildlife refuge turning 112 years old in October.

President Theodore Roosevelt established the preserve between Anna Maria Island and Egmont Key in Tampa Bay in 1905 at the urging of the National Audubon Society to end the slaughter of birds for women’s hat feathers.

Passage Key consisted of 60 acres of lush vegetation, mangroves and a fresh-water lake at the dawn of the 20th century.

“Those days are long gone,” Stan Garner said Aug. 22. Garner is an officer with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which patrols the area along with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Manatee County law enforcement units.

In 2014, the FWS announced 4 acres had surfaced after about 10 years underwater following hurricanes passing in through the Gulf of Mexico in 2004 and 2005.

Since resurfacing, shorebirds flock to Passage Key as a loafing, feeding and resting habitat, but it’s not yet on the state list for critical wildlife areas.

Nonetheless, Passage Key is a nationally protected area for shorebirds, which means no walking is permitted on the sand, Garner said.

“It’s a meandering sandbar,” he said. “It will be 6 acres today and 4 tomorrow.”

FWS shorebird survey volunteer Ashley Scarpa believes the island is slowly widening.

And with more land, sanderlings, pelicans, cormorants, dowitchers are common sights. Other species of interest include the threatened snowy plover, masked booby and roseate spoonbill, according to Scarpa.

Scarpa points out this year she’s seen a “ton of laughing gulls” producing offspring, one black skimmer having one chick — and that’s interesting because skimmers are colonial nesters — and an American oystercatcher nested, though its offspring didn’t survive.

Scarpa also reports one sea turtle nest this year.

Monthly bird counts are trending up, she said, estimating some 700 terns in July-August, including Forster’s Terns, royal terns and sandwich terns.

Signs warn Passage Key is closed and that includes dogs, too, Garner said.

People who venture closer than the mean-high water line face trespassing violations.

“They’ll get on the island if a police officer is not out there to stop them,” Garner said.

But what’s worse, he added, is when people bring dogs.

“To the birds, a dog is a predator. And if there’s a bird on a nest, it freaks them out,” Garner said.

More than 100 boats surrounded the island one Saturday in August.

Although most people observed were following the stand-off rule Aug. 5, others ignored it, throwing Frisbees to dogs, walking and sitting on the shore — despite the closed beach signs.

Garner estimates he’s seen 300 or more boaters drop anchor in the submerged lands around Passage Key on weather-friendly holidays.

And it’s a constant struggle to keep signs up.

The weather can be harsh at the mouth of Tampa Bay, where a deep channel passes the key.

“If we can just grow the island a little higher,” Garner said, “the 5- to 6-foot seas won’t bother them.”

Snorkeling next to their boat on the sunny Saturday were Greg and Rebecca Kutz of St. Petersburg, Michael Berrettia of Ocala and Paul O’Brian of Orlando.

The group said they were frequent visitors. They’ve seen fish, dolphins, sand dollars, Greg Kutz said. “The manatees even come up to the boats,” he added.

And both clothed and nude boaters face the same trespassing laws, according to Garner.

“Everyone wants to know about the nudists,” he said, adding he’s heard they’ve been going to Passage Key since the 1940s.

“Clothed or nude, it doesn’t make any difference to our officers,” he added.

Scarpa encourages people to stay off the island — not only because it’s illegal and violators face elevated fines for trespassing on the national sanctuary — but because the birds need their space.

And as it is with the passage of time, shorebirds continue to feed, rest and sometimes nest at Passage Key.


Munitions at Passage Key being studied

A report and study on the four munitions found and denotated at Passage Key in 2015 will be released in fiscal year 2018.

The U.S. Corps of Engineers is now compiling data as part of a nationwide initiative to recover artillery and learn about former defense sites.

During World War II, the island was home to the Passage Key Air-to Ground Gunnery Range, where, according to a 2008 Corps report, pilots from the MacDill Airforce Base in Tampa practiced aerial bombing.

Erica Skolte, a public affairs specialist in the regional Jacksonville office, reports that the Corps in November-December 2015 found a fuzed 37 mm projectile, 4.5-inch aerial rocket and two bomb burster fuzes with 100-pound photoflash bombs, as well as munition debris.

The Corps determined the aerial rocket and two bomb bursters were explosive and couldn’t rule it out for the other munitions and all were destroyed Dec. 15, 2015, in an underwater detonation, according to Skolte.

The federal agency published a notice of ordnance detonation and posted lighted vessels in the area, prohibiting the public within a 2000-foot radius of the island a mile north of Anna Maria until Dec. 18, 2015.

Passage Key is a national wildlife refuge and bird sanctuary protected by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

During the FUDS fieldwork, Skolte said the Corps worked closely with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to minimize interference with the bird habitat.

FWS Officer Stan Garner was on duty during the project.

“The FUDS project was completed in early 2016, and, yes, we coordinated and worked closing with both the Army Corps and contractors throughout the project,” he said.

Skolte also warns the public if munitions are found to follow the “3 Rs” of munition safety:

“Recognize the item could be dangerous. Retreat from the area immediately. Report what you found by calling 911.”

After the Corps’ Passage Key report is complete, it will be available to the public at the Island Library in Holmes Beach, she said.

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