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Sargassum solution may be as compost

FLORIDA KEYS — Adding weeds to landscaping or vegetable plots might sound crazy to gardeners, but it just might be a cost-effective solution to ridding clogged shorelines of sargassum weed.

Scientists are evaluating the viability of using sargassum weed, actually a brown macro algae that washes up seasonally, as compost for gardens.

Florida Sea Grant and the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences are looking for a green solution to removing sargassum, which could also reduce costs for coastal counties and municipalities that have to haul away the stinky seaweed.

In normal quantities, sargassum seaweed provides essential protection for oceanic creatures, but since 2011, the volume of the macro algae has exploded. In 2019, the sargassum blanketed the Keys’ coastline and sat dormant in canals.

The economic impact to Monroe County from a severe sargassum year is estimated at $20 million, according to analysts.

Sargassum has been repurposed in the past in other countries and states for a variety of uses, but recent studies from Mexico and Texas have given rise to concerns after elevated arsenic levels were found in sargassum samples.

“Before we can determine if sargassum can be used for compost or a topsoil amendment, we need to determine the chemical composition and if it is too salty for a safe compost,” said Shelly Krueger, a Florida Sea Grant agent in Monroe County.

“As far as we know, there have been no studies in South Florida to determine the level of arsenic in sargassum that washes up on our beaches,” she said. “The forms of arsenic found in sargassum are not harmful to humans unless ingested; however, it is largely unknown how it accumulates in soils or how it could accumulate in plants, for example.”

Scientists have been collecting sargassum and will be testing its quality as compost compared to typical yard mulch comprised of community tree trimmings.

“We are excited about this study,” said Michelle Leonard-Mularz, an environmental horticulture agent with UF/IFAS Extension Monroe County. “Traditionally composting sargassum has been done for a long time on an individual level, but we don’t know if there’s heavy metal accumulation in the soil.

“We get our biggest influx in June and it peaks around July. We are going to start the study this summer. We will take a look at how the material breaks down and analyze macro and micro nutrients, salinity, pH levels and see if there are heavy nutrients in there and see what concentration can we use this as a compost.”

Leonard-Mularz pointed to rising ocean temperatures as a likely culprit behind the increased sargassum influx.

“Our goal is to determine the viability of the material and how it compares to other composts. Hopefully we can use this information in neighboring counties,” she said.

For the first part of the study, researchers collected large amounts of sargassum during last summer’s wave on the beaches of the Keys, including Smather’s Beach in Key West.

During that time, Florida Sea Grant agent Vincent Encomio led a team that collected a second set of small samples along the Treasure Coast including Fort Pierce Inlet, St. Lucie and Martin county beaches.

Additional samples were collected from Grayton Beach State Park in the Panhandle, Cocoa Beach in Brevard County and Miami Beach in Miami-Dade County.

“The plan is to compare and analyze the samples collected and then hold another collection during the early season in June 2021 to compare numbers and begin the larger-scale composting experiment,” Encomio said.

Currently, most coastal counties and municipalities are paying for sargassum to be collected, transported and disposed of at construction and demolition landfills on the mainland.

Disposal fees in Monroe County are already almost three times the national average at $146 per ton, according to the UF/IFAS. In 2019, the EPA awarded Monroe County $149,995 to evaluate seaweed barrier technology for canals and to develop a sargassum control master plan.

“Knowing how to safely and effectively dispose of and repurpose sargassum will be valuable to counties and residents,” said Ashley Smyth, the study’s principal investigator and a scientist at UF/IFAS Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead. “Until local data are available, we don’t know if we can safely compost sargassum and municipalities will continue to spend extra money transporting it to hazard waste facilities.”

Local agencies and sites have partnered to support the study. Key West Botanical Garden is serving as an experiment site and the city of Key West is assisting in the collection of sargassum.

Although sargassum is not toxic, as it decomposes it produces hydrogen sulfide gas that can be problematic to those with asthma or respiratory conditions. Sargassum can also cause fish kills, smother beaches and diminish tourism.

Islamorada seeks alternatives to pedestrian bridge

ISLAMORADA — The Islamorada Village Council will ask the governor to intervene to halt a pedestrian bridge being built across U.S. 1 at Founders Park by the Florida Department of Transportation.

The fixed-span elevated crosswalk, approved by previous councils and funded by the state, is scheduled for completion in early 2022 at a cost of $4.68 million.

A majority of speakers were opposed to the pedestrian overpass during last Thursday’s virtual Zoom council meeting. Islamorada resident Van Cadenhead, however, said the project has been discussed publicly since 2014 and would enhance safety.

Councilman Henry Rosenthal said the project negatively affects community character and mediation may be necessary between the parties if his research into FDOT case law is pertinent. Mayor Buddy Pinder agreed the bridge negatively affects community character and said he was pleased with hearing from so many residents. He added nobody has been killed by crossing U.S. 1 at Founders Park.

Councilmen David Webb and Mark Gregg voiced concern over fiduciary responsibilities and consequences of seeking to halt the project.

The council agreed to approach the governor through a letter signed by Pinder asking for a re-evaluation of the project and alternative safety options such as a marked crosswalk, stoplight-on-demand or tunnel. The draft letter will be shared with council prior to transmission to the governor.

Webb said many residents told him they would change their minds and accept the project if a substantial monetary liability was imposed on Islamorada by asking FDOT to back out of contracts.

In other action, the council steered the proposed development of village-owned lots on Plantation Key for affordable or workforce housing to the achievable housing committee for its recommendation on housing options. The committee was praised for its past work.

The council also passed the first reading of an ordinance on illegal parking on streets and rights-of-way within the village and approved a couple resolutions about installing vacuum pits for wastewater treatment on North Planation Key.

Based on the escalation of traffic and illegal parking on certain rights-of-way and village streets, the council last year directed staff to look into parking enforcement measures as well as fines and penalties for illegal parking . The most problematic area was the Fills area between mile markers 77.5 and 79.8. The council requested the village institute the maximum allowable fines of $200 if paid within 30 days, and $250 thereafter. The fees were $30 if paid before 30 days, or $50 thereafter, and staff said some visitors said the fine was less than they would pay to park at Miami Beach.

A presentation about the genetically modified mosquito release project by Meredith Fensom, head of global public affairs for Oxitec, and Florida Keys Mosquito Control District Public Information Officer Chad Huff and CEO Kevin Gorman was informational in nature and public comment was heard. Since it is a district project, no council action was needed.

The council voted to charge more for public records requests. Village Clerk Kelly Toth and her staff researched the amount of time that should be offered free of charge when fulfilling public information requests. She emailed members of the Florida Association of City Clerks inquiring about fees for producing public records. Fourteen cities responded; of those, six began to charge after the first 15 minutes; six cities charge after the first 30 minutes; one city charged after the first hour; and one charged after the first two hours. Based on the responses received, village staff recommended the village change its process to provide the first 30 minutes of staff time free of charge, rather than one hour as it is currently.

After the half-hour, the requestor will be charged a compounded hourly rate based on the lowest hourly wage of the individual that could fulfill the request. The compounded rate includes FICA/Medicare taxes, retirement contribution and medical/dental/vision benefits added to the hourly rate. The compounded rate the current fiscal year is $26.44, and the increments are broken into 15-minute segments.

If a citizen breaks up a large request into smaller requests in order to avoid fees, the smaller requests may be aggregated and charged as if only one request had been made.

Acting Village Manager Maria Bassett said village hall would reopen to the public Tuesday, Jan. 19, after closing due to several planning and building department staff contracted COVID-19.

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Key deer caught in holding pattern, group says

BIG PINE KEY — A federal effort to remove Key deer from the endangered species list has been in a holding pattern since first being proposed in 2019, and that’s a good thing, says a local advocacy group

“Key deer are in stuck in the middle of the canal in a boat, and they’re not moving up or down in terms of protection,” said citizen scientist and Key Deer Protection Alliance president Vivian Beck.

Her group promotes habitat protection and public education to help the petite deer that remain listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“It’s partially because of COVID and the transition between presidential administrations,” she said during a virtual meeting last week.

In 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency recommended and held public meetings about delisting the Key deer due to recovery but action has stalled while awaiting additional information on sea level rise.

Beck sees this holding pattern as a good sign the government is considering the species’ dwindling habitat and as an opportunity to do a species assessment.

“We advocate education. Teaching people to let these little deer be free to live in nature and not to interfere with them by feeding them. When they lose their fear of the road, they’re dead,” Beck said. “In 10 years, they are going to lose more of their habitat to sea level rise. They’re going to need to go somewhere. The deer are in serious trouble. The Key deer are one storm and one disease away from total extinction and I don’t want that to happen on my watch. I’m worried. It’s sad, when people build, animals get pushed out.”

The species is only found on a few islands in the Lower Keys and has faced a number of threats in recent years, such as a fatal outbreak of flesh-eating New World screwworms in 2016 that killed 135 of the herd, which was then estimated at about 1,000, then Hurricane Irma in 2017 claimed the lives of at least 21 deer, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Beck estimates the current herd population to be between 500 and 650, with most living on Big Pine Key.

Vehicle strikes remain the biggest threat. Her group says 76 deer were killed in the area last year, and at least one so far this year.

The Key Deer Protection Alliance has been urging motorists to slow down and be vigilant for Key deer crossing the road. The group and other like-minded agencies have been working with the Florida Department of Transportation to begin installing signs around mile marker 17 in Sugarloaf Key to raise motorist awareness. Most signs previously were found around Big Pine.

Kristie Killam, a park ranger at the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges Complex, confirmed FDOT’s pledge to install the signs.

“This is happening. There is a procedural effort underway but I can’t say when they’ll be here. The signs may say something like, ‘Entering Key deer habitat, please drive carefully’ and then on each island from mile marker 33 for the next 20 miles south, there may be deer crossing signs.”

Although most of the Key deer population can be found in the managed refuge on Big Pine, they have been sighted on Cudjoe and Summerland keys, according to Killam.

She applauded the Key Deer Protection Alliance’s educational efforts.

“They are wonderful advocates in the community,” he said. “We are lucky to have so many people rooting for these little guys.”

Killam said that while most Key deer deaths can be attributed to vehicle strikes, there have been a few recent mortalities due to infections known as lumpy jaw and Johne’s disease.

For more information on the Key deer species, visit https://tinyurl.com/y27w3r2r. For more information on the Key Deer Protection Alliance, visit keydeer.org or find them on Facebook.

More derelict vessels targeted for removal

KEY LARGO — Approval of a grant agreement between the county and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission that would cover about $24,000 of the estimated total cost of $31,900 to remove two derelict vessels from Lake Surprise is expected at this week’s Monroe County Commission meeting.

The $24,069 is the remaining amount available in FWC’s fiscal year 2019-20 budget for this grant program.

The remaining $7,831 in project costs will be provided from the county’s fiscal year 2020-21 Boating Improvement Fund balance.

“In addition to this specific grant agreement, the Marine Resources Office’s staff has also secured and utilized over $181,707 in funding through this FWC grant program for the removal of 23 additional derelict vessels since March 2020. The associated grant agreements were executed by the County Administrator as they did not require County match funding,” the commission meeting agenda says.

Targeted for removal are a 55-foot white and blue houseboat for the estimated cost of $22,000 and a 33-foot white sailboat, which are just two boats littering the Lake Surprise, an area ripe for derelict vessels and houseboat rentals which FWC has been targeting.

“There is a large houseboat and sailboat that we couldn’t find the owners for,” FWC Officer Jason Rafter said. “They look like they’ve been dumped there unfortunately.”

FWC is working toward removing at least three other derelict vessels in Lake Surprise as an overall initiative to de-litter the area at the entrance to Key Largo.

“There are lot of variables that play into getting DVs [derelict vessels] removed, but hopefully they’ll be out of there soon,” Rafter said.

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