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Date of Issue: July 26, 2007

Passage Key disappears, struggles to re-emerge

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From above: Is Passage Key regaining composure? Islander Photo: Jack Elka

At extreme low tide, boaters and conservation officials get a glimpse of what was once a vibrant wildlife habitat - Passage Key.

Gulf storms, most recently the 2005 storms, have taken a toll on Passage Key, located at the southern mouth of Tampa Bay in Manatee County, as well as contributed to habitat loss on Egmont Key in Hillsborough County.

“The island got battered,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge manager James Kraus said, referring to Passage Key, designated a national wildlife refuge in 1905. “The sand was spread all around, and since we haven’t seen much evidence of Passage Key. Most of the past year, it has been submerged. The habitat that was there was definitely lost.”

There is no official statement that Passage Key is re-emerging, but new aerial photographs, as well as reports from boaters in the region, provide some hope.

“I’ve been out there in the area a bunch,” said Island boater Stanford Ross. “There’s a sandbar for certain. But it’s not what it once was, not anything like it once was.”

“At different times over the last year, you saw more or less of Passage Key,” said Tampa Bay boater and fisher Howard Mackenzie. “People say they think they see more of it. Maybe I agree. I pray for it.”

Passage Key was once “a bustling mass of activity that was spectacular,” said Kraus, who oversees the Passage Key refuge as manager of the Chassahowitzka Refuge National Wildlife Refuge Complex and is stationed in Crystal River. With people banned from the island, the activity was entirely wild - nesting, feeding and resting laughing gulls, royal terns, black skimmers, sandwich terns, brown pelicans and oystercatchers.

Simply recalling the sight of Passage Key excited Kraus.

Several years ago, he stood on a spot on the north end of Anna Maria Island and looked out across the water. “The sun was shining,” Kraus remembered. “And Passage Key was gleaming bright in the sunshine. I’ve been hoping it would recover on its own.”

The island was first identified on nautical charts as “Isla de San Francisco y Leon,” then “Burnaby Island,” and later, “Cayo del Pasaje,” or Passage Key, according to research from the FWS.

President Theodore Roosevelt, a dedicated naturalist, set aside Passage Key as one of America’s first refuges for bird conservation in 1905.

At the time, populations of pelicans, spoonbills, egrets and other birds were being decimated by hunters seeking their feathers for a price. Conservationists protested to politicians and challenged hunters themselves. Histories of the American Ornithologists Union and the Audubon Society refer to the period as the “Feather Wars” - two wardens hired to protect habitats in the state were killed.

Historians suggest that Col. Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, who were stationed in Tampa in 1898 in preparation for the Spanish American War, possibly passed Passage Key en route to Cuba.

When it was set aside as a bird sanctuary 102 years ago, Passage Key was a 60-acre barrier island with a freshwater lake and hosted more than 102 species of birds.

Over time the national wildlife refuge diminished in size. The lake and most of the vegetation were destroyed by a severe hurricane in 1921. But the spit of sand that was left remained critically important to birds. Several years ago, the largest population of royal terns and sandwich terns in Florida was found at Passage and Egmont keys.

In October 2005, a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the wildlife refuge took place near Passage Key, which was made off-limits to the public in 1991. By then, Passage Key was little more than a sandbar.

“We celebrated the 100th anniversary of the refuge,” Kraus said. “And, at the same time, we had to stand by and witness Passage Key’s demise. It was pretty much devegetated.”

Kraus said a decision now must be made on whether to rescue Passage Key or to say goodbye to the island refuge.

While another storm, given the right circumstances, could help Passage Key reform, nature will take its course slowly, he said.

“The big question is will it come back on its own? So, do we bid goodbye to a national wildlife refuge?” he said. “Do we say so long? Or do we do something to restore that island? That’s the question for people in the community.”