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"This continues to come up year after year," says Landrum, cruising his patrol boat past a dilapidated trimaran docked in the park's small harbor, nine miles east of Homestead on North Canal Drive. "We get people abandoning vessels like this, just leaving them for us to clean up. They'll scratch the serial numbers off and just cut them loose, like a stolen car. We don't have the money to get rid of this stuff."
Indeed, park superintendent Jim Sanders says the build-up had become so flagrant that the park applied, back in March of 1989, for a $30,000 increase in its base annual budget just to combat floating flotsam. The request is still mired in federal budgetary haggling, which has left the park's clean-up efforts dependent on rarely available county funds. "People still consider the ocean their dump," huffs Sanders, who for a dozen years has overseen the country's only underwater national park. "Now they've moved from throwing away little stuff to whole ships. When we were established, we had a few historical shipwrecks in the park, but we never expected the modern-day trash." He estimates it will cost up to $80,000 to dispose of the current crop of debris, not counting the estimated half-dozen derelict boats that drift into park waters each year.
Add to that the cost of hauling off several huge junk specimens that have become part of the landscape within the 181,500-acre refuge, which extends from Key Biscayne to the northern tip of the Florida Keys. The megalitter includes an 87-foot yacht that ran aground two years ago, a Haitian freighter whose remains rise like a hurricane-savaged houseboat east of Soldier Key, and -- the crowning touch -- a 30-by-60-foot barge a mile south of Key Biscayne. Landrum says the barge, probably used to build one of the dozen raised weekend homes known as Stiltsville and now piled high with rubbish, will cost tens of thousands of dollars to dismantle.
These larger wrecks, as well as recreational boats, compound the problems of an ecosystem already under siege, thrashing seagrass beds and threatening what park officials tout as the northernmost living coral reefs off the United States. They're also just plain ugly, an embarrassing reminder of urban encroachment that Landrum views as akin to a mammoth Dumpster plunked in the middle of Yellowstone Park. He hazards to guess that the park's more than half-million annual visitors would agree.
Which brings him, of course, to the garden-variety garbage, a melange of smaller refuse that floats in from tankers, cruise ships, and fisherfolk, and which hems the ocean side of the park's narrow islands. "You got driftwood out there, Styrofoam floats, sandals, thongs, barrels full of unknown substances -- you name it," says Landrum. "We have volunteer cleanups every year, but we can hardly make a dent in it with just a weekend here and there." The deluge is so thick in spots it has stymied sea turtles hoping to nest on Elliott Key.
"There are bigger problems inside the park," Landrum concedes, "starting with water quality. But the derelict vessels, the garbage, is a day-in, day-out headache, something that just never goes away. And people don't realize how much it costs to get rid of the big junk. Anytime you work in water, you're talking three times as much to get the stuff dislodged and towed. Then you've got to chop the things up and pay a dump to take it."
This past September, for instance, park rangers spent an estimated $5000 in cash and labor over three weeks to dispose of a trimaran found wallowing in the seagrass at the southern end of the park. "It was a lot like that one," says Landrum, again passing by the battered trimaran docked a few hundred feet from park headquarters. Landrum says he isn't sure how long it will take to scrape up the money and manpower to get rid of this newest find. But in the meantime he has settled on a name for the vessel. He's decided to christen her The Albatross.