MARATHON — An island that served as a nesting site to a number of bird species, such as pelicans, cormorants and magnificent frigatebirds, was cleared of high-quality mangrove during the weekend, sparking outrage from locals, a code enforcement case and an inquiry from environmental law enforcement.
Bob Williams said he goes for a swim around the uninhabited western island of Fanny Keys, known as 'Bird Island' to some locals, that sits just off the gulfside coast of Marathon in the area of Porky’s Bayside Restaurant and Marina. On Sunday afternoon, when he finished his swim, he noticed a barge pushed up on the side of the island and a backhoe clearing vegetation.
He attempted to locate a camera and return to the site, but by the time he did, the barge was gone. Williams snapped a photo of the destruction and a large number of birds standing around their decimated home.
“It’s probably the biggest rookery we have on this end of Marathon,” Williams said of the island. “For me, it’s a real bummer, and that was the only piece of pristine habitat that was left in this area and I really enjoyed swimming around there, and seeing it all cleared is a real heartbreak.”
Another one of the island’s visitors is Amy Troisi, who did a shoreline cleanup to pick up litter there at one point.
“We witnessed so many beautiful birds nesting,” Troisi said. “It was amazing. We didn’t want to disturb them so we didn’t go on the island.”
Troisi agreed with Williams that pristine natural habitat is dwindling in the Middle Keys due to development.
“If you’re familiar with Marathon you can see that we’re running out of suitable habitat for all the birds,” Troisi said. “Every little island that gets cleared is one less island for them to nest and do what they need to do to exist.”
Kelly Grinter, of the Marathon Wild Bird Center, said she was familiar with the island and its rich habitat, similar to another island the center owns that is inhabited only by birds.
“This particular habitat, this particular type of mangrove, it wasn’t low-grade, it was high-quality,” Grinter said.
Marathon City Manager George Garrett said no city permits had been issued to develop the island and the city has initiated a code case in the matter.
Garrett said in addition to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and state Department of Environmental Protection, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary was also aware of the clearing and was "working on it." He added it was possible the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issues permits for wetland development, could get involved.
"I know that island. It's largely a wetland island, although probably the center is high salt marsh and buttonwood," Garrett said.
Because of the size and nature of the island, Garrett said it has limited development potential and obtaining a permit to build on it would have been difficult. He said the DEP was in contact with the owners.
According to data from the Monroe County Property Appraiser's Office, the small island is owned by David and Tammy Marabella, listed under an address in Vista, California. The address is the same as that of Nationwide Construction and Repair Company. A LinkedIn page for David Marabella shows he is employed at that company. The Marabellas did not return phone calls requesting comment on the matter.
The Marabellas also own the island nearby called East Fanny Key, according to appraiser data. That island has a three-story house on it. Its most recent purchase was in 2015 for $1,750,000. Since then, 10 permits have been applied for at East Fanny Key to demolish and rebuild parts of the property.
FWC spokesman Bobby Dube said no one notified his agency of the clearing of the uninhabited island until after the barge was gone and asked that anyone who may have gotten a number from it or has a picture of it to alert officers.