Boats That Took Cuban Refugees Across The Straits of Florida Make Their Final Journey

Apr 18, 2017

The end of the wet-foot, dry-foot policy, which allowed Cuban refugees who made it to U.S. soil to stay in the country, also means the end of another phenomenon in the Florida Keys: refugee boats that were abandoned in remote islands.

The Marquesas, a group of islands about 20 miles west of Key West, had dozens of those boats sunk or grounded among the mangroves and mud flats. Recently, a team of marine salvors removed them.

The small, open boats, referred to as "chugs" in the Keys, were often made out of whatever material was at hand.

Until January, when Cuban migrants made it to the Marquesas, they counted as 'dry foot' and could stay in the U.S. The people were picked up and brought to Key West. The boats were left behind.
Credit Mark Hedden / WLRN

"They're made out of expandable foam, tarps, just aluminum pieces. Pieces of housing. Just any kind of industrial thing that folks can fashion into floating objects," said Dan Clark, manager of the four national wildlife refuges in the Keys. "It is a testament to the desire people have to seek a different, better life."

The engines on the boats are also remarkable.

"They're powered by everything you can imagine, too," Clark said. "A lot of them are powered by car engines."

One of the engines that propelled a vessel from Cuba to the Marquesas
Credit Mark Hedden / WLRN

Clark was on hand for the removal of the chugs because the Marquesas are part of the Key West National Wildlife Refuge. President Teddy Roosevelt created the refuge in 1908 to protect the sea birds from plume hunters. The feathers from pelicans, herons and egrets were prized for women's hats.

Now the refuge serves as a nesting area for birds as well as sea turtles. And it's one of the finest fishing grounds in the Keys.

It's a federally designated wilderness, but while the crews from Coffin Marine on Big Pine are working, the sounds of generators and other equipment resound through the islands. They use a crane with a claw on the end to pick up a half-sunken boat after they've hosed out the muck — and removed a few lionfish.

"The hull is so thin," Clark said. "It's kind of like trying to pick up a car engine that's wrapped around Kleenex, to keep it all in one intact piece."

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Officer Glen Way has been patrolling in the Lower Keys for seven years. FWC officers would pick up migrants who arrived in places like the Marquesas, too shallow for Coast Guard boats to reach.

A total of 31 boats were removed from the Marquesas, in a project that cost $62,000.
Credit Mark Hedden / WLRN

"Every time that I processed or helped process the migrants off the shore, they all had a handheld GPS. And they actually had the waypoints of either Loggerhead Beach, which is out at the Tortugas, Fort Jefferson or the Marquesas as preferred landing areas," Way said.

The priority was the people, so the boats were left behind — which left a potential environmental hazard in the middle of a national wildlife refuge. And it's not just a wildlife refuge — it's also part of a national marine sanctuary.

Which leads to the question: Who is responsible for these boats?

"It's sort of a challenge," Clark said. "No one really owns these vessels when they come from a foreign country and they're just deposited here. It sort of becomes the property of the place that they reside."

Monroe County paid for most of the removal. The county receives money from vessel registration fees to remove derelict boats. The county contributed $48,000 to the project while the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary provided another $14,000, said Monroe County spokeswoman Cammy Clark.

Dan Clark, the refuge manager, said he's glad to see the Marquesas regain its character as a wilderness.

"You can expect to come to the Marquesas, and should forever, to have a primitive experience," he said. "Camping is not authorized here so you won't have human disturbance of that place. So it should look like, in perpetuity, a really natural undisturbed space, which is really exciting to have so close to the Keys — and especially Key West."

A total of 31 boats were hauled away from the Marquesas. The last one they took out was a 25-foot Cuban fishing boat named Mariel.

The Marquesas are 20 miles west of Key West and are a popular area for fishing and recreation for people who live in the Lower Keys.
Credit Mark Hedden / WLRN