October 18, 2017

Staff at Theater of the Sea are concerned that dolphins may be susceptible to airborne pathogens generated by a large debris pile that sits on the other side of U.S. 1 from the marine mammal park. The Islamorada Village Council said they would do their best to have the site cleaned up within 30 days of its regular Oct. 5 council meeting.

Staff at Theater of the Sea are concerned that dolphins may be susceptible to airborne pathogens generated by a large debris pile that sits on the other side of U.S. 1 from the marine mammal park. The Islamorada Village Council said they would do their best to have the site cleaned up within 30 days of its regular Oct. 5 council meeting.

ISLAMORADA — As the village works to dig out of the mess left by Hurricane Irma, Theater of the Sea personnel are concerned that a large debris pile staged across from the marine mammal park could affect the health of its dolphins.

That site, among others, was approved for temporary storage until crews are able to collect debris and trucks have time to ultimately haul it to the mainland, according to Village Manager Seth Lawless, 

Lawless said at the Oct. 5 meeting of the Village Council that he wasn’t aware of any potential hazard posed to the park’s dolphins when the location was approved.

“I certainly didn’t realize the threat to their animal community,” Lawless said.

Michael Renner, the park’s veterinarian, detailed in a letter presented to the council the respiratory and infection-related issues dolphins face when the air they breathe is contaminated by particulates.

“Dolphins (have) virtually no upper airway protective mechanisms for filtering air before it reaches the lungs,” Renner wrote. “Aerosolized particle(s) from dig sites and construction have been documented to cause disease (typically fungal pneumonia) in dolphins living nearby.”

Theater of the Sea curator Beverly Osborne referenced a similar issue brought about by Hurricane Wilma, which struck the region in 2005. She acknowledged that Irma left more damage than that storm and that the village informed her that with all the cleanup necessary this time around, sites to temporarily store debris are scarce.

“I think things are worse this time, and they’re saying there’s nowhere else to move it,” Osborne said.

Osborne says the park follows strict federal guidelines to ensure that the health of dolphins is protected. She worries that because Theater of the Sea has no control over the placement of the debris pile, the risk to the animals’ health is high.

“We have protocols that we follow here,” she said. “Any time we do any digging to plant something, or repair something, we spray the area to kill the pathogens. All of our protocols are kind of going out the window with the heavy machinery making this pile of stuff near our facility that is (affecting) the air quality. When they go to move it, we have to worry about that, too.”

While council members voiced concern about the potential health risk to the park’s dolphins, they said their hands are tied.

Lawless pointed out that another debris site at mile marker 80 is filled to capacity. He informed the council that the pile there is 20 feet high, in his estimation.

“It’s a wall of trash,” he said. “The only other place I have to put it right now is (at Founders Park),” Lawless said. “I don’t know that it makes a lot of sense to move it to another temporary site even if we had one, and then move it again.”

Other council members pointed out the cost and inefficiency of shuffling debris piles around before they can be shuttled off to their final destination.

Though sympathetic with the concerns of Theater of the Sea staff, council members seemed to be in agreement that not much could be done.

“I don’t want to move it,” Councilman Chris Sante said. “I understand their concern, (and) I’ve received phone calls from several people from Theater of the Sea. But everybody is suffering right now.”

Councilwoman Cheryl Meads concurred while praising work crews for their efforts to help dig out of the mess.

“There’s a huge cost to this, and the more efficient we are the faster this is going to be done,” she said. “We have constraints, and staff is doing its absolute best under difficult situations and doing a great job.”

Osborne still holds out hope that something can be done to address the debris, though the council agreed to attempt to have the pile moved within 30 days of the meeting.

“We are a popular attraction for the village, and I know no one would intentionally do anything that they think is harmful,” she said. “We just want to keep them healthy. They did great during the hurricane and we love them; they’re our family.”

cwickenhofer@keysnews.com