If you've driven past Islamorada's Whale Harbor Channel or Anne's Beach during the last few winters, you've probably noticed the growing popularity of kiteboarding.
Practically anytime the wind is up, colorful kites are aloft, pulling daring souls across the water.
The local growth of kiteboarding has brought a new group of visitors to the Upper Keys and played a part in National Geographic Adventurer Magazine's decision last summer to name Islamorada one of the top 12 cities in the United States in which to live and play.
But it has also whipped up concern among some fishing guides, who say the kiteboarders are damaging the flats, scaring away the fish and distracting beachgoers with ill-controlled falling kites.
Now, spurred by such concerns, an advisory committee to Islamorada's Village Council will soon explore whether kiteboarding should be regulated.
"We have absolutely not formed any sort of opinion or are leaning toward any particular way," said Bob Mitchell, chairman of the village's Near Shore Water Citizens' Support Committee. "But there have been some things mentioned that we think would better be discussed rather than let lie."
The committee plans to take up kiteboarding at its August meeting, a date for which has not yet been set, Mitchell said. Depending on how things go, the committee could make a recommendation to the Village Council, which is empowered to set rules extending to 400 yards offshore.
The regulation of kiteboarding is not a new concept in South Florida. Enthusiasts at Crandon Park on Key Biscayne, for example, must have certification from one of two national kiteboarding organizations before getting on the water. They also must enter the water through a marked area and remain outside markers that keep them away from the shoreline.
Shana Mastro, owner of Otherside Boardsports, one of two kiteboard vendors and concessionaires in Islamorada, says such regulations have actually helped drive people to the Keys. Creating similar rules here could stymie that flow.
"First and foremost, everybody here has noticed that increase in kiteboarding over the past couple of years," Mastro said. "It is helping the tourism and the economy down here so much. There really is no denying that it is bringing people down here."
She says that during lessons Otherside instructors emphasize safety above all. They also encourage customers to keep a respectful distance from fishing charters.
Fishermen's complaints, she said, have more to do with territorialism than anything else.
Not so, said Len Roberts, a fishing guide who was based out of Whale Harbor last winter. Kiteboarders, he said, are damaging the flats, increasing traffic around Whale Harbor and putting stunt ramps where they shouldn't be.
What's more, adds charter guide Matt Bellinger, is that kiteboarders, who don't have to worry about rules governing where combustible engines can go, are scaring away the fish.
"The big issue that is riling people up is that [the government] took these flats to protect them because they realize the value of the fishery. And now these kiteboards, because they can go in such shallow water, they can go 25 miles per hour over the flats," he said.
Bellinger is one of four active charter guides on the village's 10-member nearshore water committee. None of the members are from the kiteboarding industry.
Despite the concerns of fishing guides, as well as claims about kites disrupting beach users, Capt. Don Fanelli, who heads the Islamorada sector of the Monroe County Sheriff's Office, said his office has received no reports referencing specific incidents. What they have heard is more general, after-the-fact complaints.
Lt. Keith Barcomb, who patrols Upper Keys waters for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, says the only complaint he's received related to kiteboarders was about ramps left out overnight. But they were in a no-combustion zone.
"You couldn't consider something in there a hazard to navigation," he said.
Barcomb said he's seen no evidence of kiteboard damage on the flats and he doesn't think their use needs to be regulated.
"I don't see any difference between this and kayaks, canoes, a guide fisherman polling or a guide fisherman using an electric motor going across the flats," he said.
Fanelli, however, said some regulation could be helpful.
"We need to be very cautious about how we go about it," he said. "It's a decent sport. It's somebody's livelihood. But we don't want people going over the flats, and we need to make sure that people relaxing on the beach can relax, that they don't have kites falling on them."
Brad Lange, owner of Seven Sports, which rents kiteboards at Whale Harbor Marina, said he welcomes a battle over the growing sport. He scoffs at claims from fishermen that kiteboards are hurting the flats.
"Show me any kind of proof of damage on any level and we'll compare that to flats fishermen," he said.