Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Friday, April 26, 2013
Thousands of casitas still line seafloor
BP money could fund removal of the illegal lobster condos

The removal of illegal lobster condos called casitas from the waters off the Florida Keys has come after extensive criminal investigations and at the cost of those convicted of placing them on the seafloor.

Between 1,200 and 1,500 casitas -- which were built out of PVC piping, concrete blocks and in some cases hurricane shutters and highway guardrails -- were removed from the Gulf of Mexico nearshore waters of the Keys between 2009 and 2012, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) law enforcement officers.

But it's estimated that there are thousands more in the backcountry that could cost millions to remove.

Monroe County Mayor George Neugent and Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Superintendent Sean Morton have been in discussions about using BP fine money, called Restore Act funds, to remove the casitas.

"I am looking for someone like The Nature Conservancy, Mote (Marine Laboratory) or Sanctuary Friends (Foundation) to put a proposal together with the Sanctuary to remove known casitas," Neugent said. "This would be a substantial project request."

Morton would like to see Restore Act funds used for the removal of all marine debris, which would also include trash from nearshore islands and mangroves, derelict traps and trap lines. However, the removal of casitas is the most expensive and time consuming, as it requires state and federal permitting and some salvage equipment for removal, he said.

"It's a huge need," Morton said. "It's part of marine debris removal."

The sanctuary and NOAA would have to conduct an extensive "pre-removal survey," he said. The sanctuary and the sponsoring group would have to consult with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and National Marine Fisheries Service.

"This would have to be a coordinated effort," Morton said.

NOAA law enforcement officers and the U.S. Attorney's Office have aggressively pursued cases against divers who have placed and dived on lobster casitas in the Florida Keys. The investigations have led to nearly a dozen convictions.

However, the Florida Fish and Conservation Commission (FWC) is currently reviewing casitas to determine if they should be allowed as commercial lobster gear. The FWC board discussed it in November 2011 and directed its staff to research the issue. Staff has yet to return to the board with a recommendation.

Casita supporters argue that the structures are an environmentally friendly way of catching lobster that become part of the natural environment. Opponents contend casitas upset lobster migration patterns, destroy seagrass and other bottom habitat and are nothing more than trash being dumped into the water to lure lobsters.

tohara@keysnews.com

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