Boaters from the Lower Keys often escape to the nearby islands of the Key West National Wildlife Refuge.
The refuge was created in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt to protect birds from plume hunters. Several of the islands have beaches that are attractive to boaters — and to nesting sea turtles and shorebirds.
Most of the time the human use is compatible with wildlife protection, said Chris Eggleston, acting manager of the Keys national wildlife refuges. But during the Key West Offshore Poker Run in recent years, hundreds of powerboats have converged on the islands.
"They bring a party with them — there's helicopters and drones and other things," Eggleston said.
So this year, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has declared Boca Grande, Woman Key and the Marquesas Keys off-limits to all boaters from Nov. 13-16.
"Historically at this time of year, there have been extreme disturbances from boaters," Eggleston said. "We're trying to get ahead of that problem."
Boca Grande and the Marquesas are home to the extremely rare Miami blue butterfly, Eggleston said. The islands also provide habitat for nesting shorebirds and are important for birds during the fall migration.
"It's really critical that they are able to land, rest and feed and we're not running them all off," he said.
The Fish & Wildlife Service plans to post signs on the islands' beaches, and the area will be patrolled by officers from that agency, as well as Monroe County, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.