October 31, 2018

SOUTH FLORIDA — Two online classes for Florida Keys boat operators — one mandatory and one recommended — could launch in early 2019, federal agency staffers say.

The timelines for both the mandatory Everglades National Park class for Florida Bay operators and the voluntary Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary boat class remain tentative.

In mid-2017, Everglades National Park staff expected to have the Florida Bay class running by January 2018.

“There are still some internal things to be worked out,” park information officer Allyson Gantt said last week. “We’ll be rolling it out in the next few months. We’re saying early 2019.”

The Florida Bay class for boat operators will be free but required for those navigating inside park waters. The course, available in English or Spanish, will have to be renewed every two years. The National Park Service eliminated a $50 fee for the course that was previously proposed.

“Boating in the Florida Bay is a task for the skilled. Treacherous passes cut through long banks of mud and seagrass that separate the shallow basins that make up Florida Bay,” says a park caution to boaters. “Safe boating requires the ability to ‘read the water’ as well as a chart. … On average, the bay is less than 3 feet deep, so knowing the draft (depth) of your boat is important.”

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary may unveil its voluntary class before the Florida Bay course.

“The Everglades courses were delayed and the courses for the Marine Sanctuary are on schedule,” said L. Kate Wiltz, project manager for Indiana University’s Eppley Institute for Parks and Public Lands, which is developing both boating programs.

While voluntary, said sanctuary information officer Gena Parsons, “the online course will be offered for free with a certificate of completion provided that could potentially be beneficial when renting a boat or purchasing insurance.”

The class is not intended to replace a basic safe-boating course but serves as a supplement to make mariners aware of the need “to protect sanctuary users and the sensitive marine environment of the Florida Keys.”

“More than 300 groundings are reported within Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary each year with nearly 80 percent of these incidents impacting seagrass habitat,” she said. “Many more groundings go unreported.”

Fines for damaging marine resources within the sanctuary can be expensive.

Sanctuary staff is also working on proposals for an updated management plan but anticipates release of the boating class before public focus on plan changes begins.

kwadlow@keysnews.com