Taming the 'wild West': Crab Island crackdown has reduced, but not stopped, drunk boating

Tony Judnich
Northwest Florida Daily News

DESTIN — While the illegal sale or distribution of alcohol by some businesses at Crab Island seems like a thing of the past, the submerged island in at least one colossal way retains the “wild West” moniker it was saddled with a few years ago by a former elected official.

Contributing to the recreational area’s continuing party spot reputation, says a local law enforcement official, are spinoff effects from the COVID-19 pandemic that followed waves of new regulations in recent years on island businesses of all sizes.

A floating business sits among the boaters at Crab Island during Memorial Day weekend. Although higher fees and tighter regulations have reined in businesses at Crab Island, alcohol consumption by visitors remains a problem for law officers.

In short, a soaring number of boating under the influence cases show Crab Island still has a major alcohol problem despite efforts to rein in unlawful shenanigans.

Taming the beast

Back in June 2017, a new state law was established that, among other things, “authorizes local government to enact and enforce certain regulations” on waters falling within its jurisdiction.

The legislation “does not prohibit local government authorities from the enactment or enforcement of regulations that prohibit or restrict the mooring or anchoring of floating structures, live-aboard vessels or commercial vessels ... within their jurisdictions.”

That law gave local authorities their first-ever ability to regulate commercial activities at Crab Island, located north of the Marler Bridge and just west of Destin.

And in the years that followed the regulation’s establishment, Okaloosa County leaders, supported by city of Destin and other government officials, took a hard look at cracking down on the island’s misfit reputation.

A few years ago, then-County Commissioner Kelly Windes labeled Crab Island the “wild West” in light of its heavy partying ways.

The operators of some businesses on large floating structures and other commercial vessels around that time reportedly were unlawfully selling or distributing alcohol to many island visitors. Tales about vendors selling drink mixes while giving away the accompanying booze, as well as the presence of “stripper poles” among the Crab Island crowds, were hot topics at commission meetings.

Local officials had reason for concern: The number of marine violations such as speeding at Crab Island skyrocketed from 89 in 2016 to 562 in 2017, while the number of distressed swimmers jumped from nine in 2016 to 30 the following year.

Many boaters enjoyed the warm temperatures and calm water of Crab Island near Destin this past Memorial Day. As of Tuesday, the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office's Marine Unit had already made 58 boating under the influence arrests this year, or two more than in all of 2020.

After numerous public discussions and debates, the county in the fall of 2018 began prohibiting the sale, distribution or consumption of alcoholic beverages on various commercial floating structures and vessels at Crab Island.

Then more regulations were piled on.

Catalysts for change:Digging into Crab Island issues

Besides being in the county’s unincorporated area, Crab Island is within the boundaries of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, which is managed by the National Park Service.

In early 2019, the NPS began requiring each Crab Island vendor to have a $100 annual permit. While the National Seashore was established in 1971, the NPS did not require the permit earlier because of staffing issues and complex jurisdictional issues, the National Seashore’s then-superintendent said in early 2018.

The new boss:Gulf Islands National Seashore officially names a new superintendent

In November 2019 Okaloosa County began banning floating structures from anchoring overnight on Crab Island. And in February 2020, the county implemented huge fee increases to businesses that operated there.

For example, the monthly fee for each commercial vessel shot up to $400, an increase of $200. Two other fees each were increased by $500: the monthly fee for each floating structure that occupied less than 1,500 square feet rose to $1,500 and the one for each floating structure that occupied 1,500 feet or more jumped to $2,000.

The spike in business regulations and fees has not led to a commercial-free Crab Island, though.

Far from it. Currently, the island has 18 authorized vendors who operate a total of 28 commercial vessels and five floating structures, according to county Growth Management Department data provided by county spokeswoman April Sarver.

In comparison, the island had 28 authorized vendors who ran 36 commercial vessels and three floating structures last year.

“There are still some floating structures out there, but they’re not as large as those in the past,” Lt. Joseph Fulghum from the county Sheriff’s Office Marine Unit said Tuesday. “Most of what you’re seeing is a lot of smaller boats that are selling things like T-shirts and ice cream. I haven’t had any complaints about alcohol sales taking place out there (so far this year). We definitely haven’t come across any ourselves.”

Unfortunately, Crab Island remains a huge factor in a record number of boating under the influence arrests that already have surpassed last year’s total, Fulghum said.

Virus-free but not trouble-free

Boat sales and the number of boaters in the area began escalating at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, Fulghum said.

“Many people were not wanting to isolate anymore,” he said.

While island vendor issues pale in comparison to previous years, “We’re still very busy with the crowds” at Crab Island, Fulghum said.

The Marine Unit and its six members use five boats to patrol Crab Island, Destin Harbor and East Pass, as well as Choctawhatchee Bay, the Santa Rosa Sound and a portion of the Gulf of Mexico. During the busy summer months, the unit helps keep an eye on those areas on a daily basis.

Back in 2017, the Marine Unit made a total of three BUI arrests.

In comparison, as of Tuesday, the unit already had made 58 BUI arrests for 2021, or two more than the entire previous year’s total. Last year’s total of 56 BUI arrests made by the unit represented the most of any law-enforcement agency in Florida.

The “vast majority” of all of those arrests from this year and in 2020 occurred in the Crab Island area, Fulghum said.

“We need to get information out to the press and on social media that BUI is just as dangerous as driving a car under the influence, and sometimes more so,” he said. “There needs to be an awareness campaign about how there are going to be consequences if you’re caught doing so.”

According to state law, anyone found guilty of boating under the influence can receive a fine of up to $1,000 and imprisonment of up to six months for the first conviction.

“People love to come to Destin and, post-COVID, we’re seeing higher numbers,” said County Commissioner Mel Ponder, whose District 5 area includes Destin. “A lot of people do come down and enjoy themselves, and one of the ways they do that is by having a drink. We want people to enjoy themselves here, but being at the top of the state (in the number of BUI arrests) is not something we should be proud of.”

Ponder praised Fulghum and the Marine Unit, however, for “doing a phenomenal job” of arresting boaters under the influence. He said the unit has been assisted by a new boat.

“Having that extra vessel helps them spread out more and stop more people from operating boats under the influence,” Ponder said. “To the county’s credit, I’m glad they’re not seeing any kind of activities from the (Crab Island) vendors, either through direct alcohol sales or giveaways.”

Along with BUIs, boaters being unfamiliar with vessel operations and violating no-wake zone rules are the Marine Unit’s top concerns at Crab Island, Fulghum said.

He said local livery vessel companies that rent out pontoon boats, personal watercraft and other vessels have been working very hard to create training videos and coming up with other better ways of teaching their customers about safe boating operations before they leave the docks.

“But on some of the pontoon boats, the renter allows another person to operate the boat,” Fulghum said. “That’s still a significant problem.”

The issue is widespread.

“We are seeing a lot more livery vessels that are coming from outside of Destin,” Fulghum said.

Also, while local officials don’t keep stats on them, Fulghum said the number of kayakers, paddleboarders, snorkelers and people enjoying other water activities in the Marine Unit’s coverage area continues to increase.