Maji's Market Minute August 2, 2023

Biscayne Wildlife in Peril – Party yachts a threat to Morningside bird colony

Poor water quality in Biscayne Bay and its effects on underwater sea animals have been hot topics since the 2020 fish kill, which made headlines statewide and has occurred again every year since. Lesser known, however, are the impacts such conditions have on those found higher up, both in the food chain and in the ecosystem itself. Resting on tree canopies rather than tidal waves, our winged friends, too, rely heavily on the bay for their survival.

Located in Biscayne Bay off the coast of Belle Meade, Bird Key Island had served as a sanctuary for birds to nest and roost away from the dangers of predators – also known as a rookery – for at least 250 years. But between 2019 and 2020, almost as if to foreshadow the pending disaster, that centuries-old rookery collapsed.

Now, just three years later, Morningside residents have discovered a new rookery off their own coast, located on Morningside Picnic Islands just two miles south of Bird Key. Many believe the birds who abandoned the latter island have now adopted the Morningside rookery as their new safe haven, giving local conservationists another chance to protect them.

Although the exact cause of Bird Key’s collapse is unknown, what is known is that jet skis, boats and algae blooms pose a clear and present danger to the birds’ peace and resources. Add in a newly proposed floating social club to the mix, and things get especially tricky.

In its latest business venture, luxury hospitality collective Arkhaus is planning to place four multistory house yachts just 400 yards off the coast at Bird Key. The floating vessels will then be used as work, relaxation or social space by private members for an annual fee of $5,000 to $10,000.

Residents fear that the cost to the environment will be much greater.


Securing Protections

Residents of Morningside first heard of Arkhaus’ plan in June, right after a presentation on the rookery that they had only recently become aware of. Maji Ramos, a member of the Morningside 2023 Historic Homes Tour committee, helped organize the June 16, 2023, event, where members of the nonprofit organization Pelican Harbor Seabird Station were present to educate attendees on the importance of rookeries in South Florida.

Paiva describes the approach as “eco-hospitality,” utilizing solar-powered vessels and electric propulsion systems as part of a larger environmental focus.

As for Bird Key, Payrovi said, “the birds have not been there for a very, very, very long time.”

But Boykin has the opposite idea. His wound is still fresh.

“The main concern is that, although the Bird Key rookery has collapsed, it’s only been a few years, and for something that has been there for three and a half centuries with such biodiversity to be replaced by a private social club – it just kind of hurts the heart,” he said.

Conversely, Paiva and Payrovi believe that their presence will actually benefit Bird Key. The duo, believing that trash buildup was the cause of the rookery’s collapse, plans to organize a large-scale cleanup of the island.

“We believe that if the birds are going to return to Bird Key, it’s going to be because of the environmental work that we do,” said Payrovi.

Although there are multiple suspects for the rookery’s collapse, Zambrano disagrees that trash is one of them. Unidentified predators and human disturbances are much more likely culprits than any plastic lying on the ground, far away from the tree canopies that birds like to occupy.

Because Bird Key is no longer an active rookery, Zambrano doesn’t submit to opposition against Arkhaus’ plans, but he also doesn’t believe that any efforts to restore the rookery are likely to persevere.

“There is hope, but not through us,” he said. “It would really be up to the birds to decide to come back. So far, no one’s really been successful in trying to attract these types of birds to a spot. We don’t know how they might choose one over another.”

“A lot of the ornithologists have said that it’s hard for the birds to come back once they’re gone,” Boykin said, “but they definitely won’t come back if there’s a private social club there with noise and music right there adjacent to the island.”


Murky Plans

Before Arkhaus can prove whether its plans will be environmentally harmful, it first has to prove that they’re even legal.

Laura Reynolds, vice president of Friends of Biscayne Bay, says Arkhaus isn’t likely to acquire the necessary permits to set up camp on Biscayne Bay, not if she has anything to do with it.

“You shouldn’t come anywhere near these islands with a vessel like that, and I’m fine to call it a vessel,” she said. “If you put a motor on it and you want to call it a vessel, that’s fine, but make no mistake. This is something that’s new that may not be dealt with in the law, and we need to deal with it. It is not something that’s sustainable because it will impact seagrasses and it will impact the birds.”

Lisa Spadafina, director of the county’s Division of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), can’t say one way or another whether the Arkhaus project will be allowed because she has yet to receive a permit application from the company. She did explain, however, that the county’s master plan ensures that Biscayne Bay is only used for water-dependent structures, like docks, fishing or diving, while another section of the code prohibits floating structures altogether.

“To protect the bay and its resources, the code is aimed at limiting things that don’t need to be impactful to the bay,” Spadafina said. “Anything that doesn’t need to be on the water shouldn’t be on the water. If somebody wanted to build a tennis club or a social club or have a place for people to convene and have yoga classes, all of those things wouldn’t really be water-dependent.”

Conceptually speaking, then, the plan isn’t allowed, at least not according to county code. The company is also regulated by city permitting processes and the U.S. Coast Guard. Payrovi said the company’s legal team is responsible for working through all of the necessary clearances, but that they’re not trying to skirt any rules.

“It’s in their hands at this point,” said Payrovi. “What I can tell you is that everything that we need, we will get.”

Arkhaus can indeed apply for a variance to the county code. That would require the project being reviewed by city staff, for which environmental impact is a factor, and then considered at a public hearing and approved by the Board of County Commissioners.