ISLAMORADA -- Crocodiles are here to stay, so people are just going to have to learn to deal with them.
That was the message last week of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist Lindsey Hord, who spoke before a concerned Village Council.
"What you are experiencing is the return of the crocodile to its historic range," Lindsey told the council. "... We can live with these things. It just requires acceptance of the fact that they are going to be here, and to accommodate that, taking some common sense safety steps."
The number of crocodiles in Florida has increased from a low of less than 300 in 1975 to an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 now.
Though crocs are still listed as a federally threatened species, the Village Council, and the Upper Keys community in general, has become increasingly concerned about their growing presence along local shorelines and in residential canals.
Fear especially heightened after a crocodile took a Key Largo dog in March and was able to drown it before being scared away.
In Islamorada, crocodile sightings have spread as well, making their way, among other places, to Robbie's Marina, owned by Mayor Michael Reckwerdt, and into the canals of neighborhoods such as Lower Matecumbe Key's Port Antigua.
"What about our children, grandchildren, elderly relatives and friends? What happened to the days we enjoyed swimming in the canal? Friends, we must now use caution while canoeing and kayaking," reads a May 23 email sent by Port Antigua residents Bill and Robin Fountain to others in the neighborhood.
With Hord there to take questions at the May 25 meeting, council members were hoping to hear a satisfying answer to queries such as that one.
But the FWC biologist offered no magic bullet.
It is illegal to harm or kill crocodiles, he said. And while they are occasionally removed from canals where they become a nuisance, that isn't a solution either. Territorial by nature, crocs tend to return to old stomping grounds. Even if one of the reptiles doesn't return, its absence simply leaves a void for another crocodile to fill.
Hord reminded Islamoradans that according to the FWC, there has never been a recorded crocodile attack on a human in all of Florida. (The FWC dismissed a reported crocodile attack on two Key Largo kayakers in 2011 but never offered an alternative explanation for the evidenced puncture wounds and scratches). Meanwhile, he said, six people drowned in Monroe County last year.
Still, he acknowledged that crocodiles present a danger, especially to pets.
"The fact is that people's pets are not safe near a waterway in Florida," Hord said, also referencing alligators in fresh water environments.
Unsatisfied, Councilman Dave Purdo pushed to know what officials can do to safeguard people and their pets from crocodiles.
"Do we wait until a child gets hurt until we do something?" Purdo asked. "Is that what we're waiting for, until a child gets hurt?"
Hord responded that education and personal choices are the key. He advised the Village Council to hold a town hall meeting about crocodiles, suggesting that they'll likely find that while many are afraid of the reptiles, there are also many who are supportive and protective of them.
Beyond that, Hord said, individuals can choose to take precautions such as fencing their dock areas, keeping children and pets away from canals and either not swimming at all or avoiding swimming at night.
Just how careful each parent, grandparent, pet owner and individual chooses to be is a matter of personal choice and risk tolerance, he said.
Reckwerdt, harkening back to relaxing evenings on the dock, sounded unsatisfied with the explanation.
"We're talking about a complete change of a way of life for us," he said.
Also last Thursday, the council tapped the firm Alcade Fay as the top choice to lobby on the village's behalf for federal wastewater dollars. Council members preferred Alcade over competitor Mercury Clark Weinstock because it is smaller and because it has already worked for years with Key West. Village Manager Ed Koconis is tasked with negotiating a one-year deal with Alcade.
Finally, the council unanimously approved a resolution calling on the Florida Department of Transportation to move ahead in erecting a sign renaming the Whale Harbor Bridge in honor of the late Holiday Isle visionary, Joe Roth Jr.
The Florida Legislature authorized the name change this spring.
"From my heart, his and the family's, thank you so much," Roth's wife, Lindy, told the council