Miami boat show creates threat to manatees, activists say

Sea trials and temporary docks are set up in a protected manatee habitat

Sea trials and a staging area are set up in a protected manatee habitat, which comes after the deadliest year on record for Florida manatees who are starving by the hundreds.

MIAMI – The Miami International Boat Show launched Wednesday after taking a pause last year because of the pandemic, but not everybody is cheering.

A huge staging area on Biscayne Bay with temporary docks that can accommodate almost 1,000 boats has been built right on top of a protected manatee habitat — at a time when the very survival of the species is at risk.

More than just a few of the beloved sea cows were spotted in recent days in this area of the bay, just south of the Venetian Causeway along the western shoreline, where the boat show will be staging its sea trials — test drives on the water — over the next five days.

Activists like Maria Jose Algarra are very concerned.

“It’s up to all of us to actually come together and help protect Biscayne Bay and our manatees,” said Algara, founder of the nonprofit Clean This Beach Up. “Honestly, I can’t believe that this is even being allowed.”

Miami-Dade County’s commissioners approved it back in December after boat show organizers insisted the trials are vital.

“These are not test drives that are run by consumers, they’re run by licensed captains,” said Spencer Crowley, an attorney representing the event, told the commission. “These sea trials have always been a part of the Miami International Boat Show.”

But not here. For 30 years, the sea trials were on Miami Beach and staged on Indian Creek before they moved to Virginia Key in 2019. Those areas are not essential manatee habitats like this year’s location.

“It is unconscionable that this would even be considered in a year like this, with so many manatee mortalities,” said Kim Dinkins, senior conservation associate for Save the Manatee Club.

That nonprofit is sounding the alarm bells after a record 1,100 Florida manatees died in 2021. Most of them starved to death, with their only food source, the seagrass, fast disappearing across the state.

“We were probably at about 100 manatees dead already this year in the in our first month,” Dinkins said.

The Indian River Lagoon, on Florida’s Treasure Coast, is the epicenter of this mass starvation event. But it doesn’t mean South Florida’s manatees aren’t at risk.

“There have been reports of emaciated manatees in the South Florida area for sure,” Dinkins said. “And then some of those deaths did happen in South Florida.”

As Local 10 News has been reporting, portions of Biscayne Bay, especially in the north, have lost acres of seagrass.The Julia Tuttle Basin has lost 90%, which is why Lee Hefty, director of Miami-Dade’s environmental resource management, advised against the sea trails here.

“If you’re a manatee with a small calf looking for food, and right now that’s a heck of a thing to try and do when there’s no seagrasses, everything that is disrupting your behavior through boat traffic is disrupting your ability to survive,” Hefty said.

But the boat show is too big of a moneymaker, others say.

“This is multi, multi-million dollars that employ so many people within our community,” Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz said.

So the sea trials are happening, though they will be strictly regulated. Only 150 of them have been approved and they can only use one route along Fisherman’s Channel south of Port Miami, where just a few weeks ago a momma manatee and two calves were recorded by the Coral Cam.

“It’s not a surprise to see manatees in this area,” Hefty said.

The staging location is most concerning, activists say, with floating temporary docks that now make room for 947 slips, instead of the 630 slips of years past, in a protected manatee habitat.

“We can’t afford to lose even one manatee this year to a boat strike,” Dinkins said.

And it’s not just about the potential boat strikes but all the traffic disrupting the manatees’ behavior.

“They could be in this area foraging for food, but now there’s going to be 650 boats, and 150 slips dedicated to sea trials,” Hefty said.

The boat show must comply with the county’s manatee protection plan. Each sea trial vessel must have a manatee spotter on board, and there are manatee observers on the docks. The boat show also must look out for manatees from above using drones.

If a manatee is spotted in the vicinity, all activities on the water must stop right then and there — all sea trials suspended until after the manatee leaves the area.

Marine patrol and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will also have officers on boats to make sure the rules are strictly enforced.

“DERM is on board, doing all the monitoring that we can in order to minimize the resource impacts,” Hefty said.

To Hefty, the risk is still too great and he is encouraging boat show organizers to find somewhere else on the bay to host next year’s sea trials, away from the manatees.

“The boat show can still have a static setting where the boats are here, people can come enjoy them while they’re sitting here for the five days,” he said. “But the sea trials, the in and out activity, really should be located to another part of the bay.”

The sea trial vessels also must document all travel during the show and submit their logs to the county within seven days after the show is over, to see what impact this had, if any, on our manatees.

The public is also encouraged to keep watch. If you see a manatee in the sea trail area, the county has set up hotline to report it: call 305-372-6955 or email baywatch@miamidade.gov.


About the Author:

Louis Aguirre is an Emmy-award winning journalist who anchors weekday newscasts and serves as WPLG Local 10’s Environmental Advocate.