Activists concerned for manatee safety during Miami International Boat Show

MIAMI – The Miami International Boat Show is back next week, and with it the controversy over the staging of sea trails over a protected manatee habitat in Biscayne Bay.

Environmentalists are very concerned about the protection of the gentile sea cows who continue to die in record numbers across our state.

However, boat show organizers say they’re stepping up to make sure no manatees are harmed.

Eco activist MJ Alagarra, founder and executive director of Clean This Beach Up, is worried.

It’s just days before the Miami International Boat Show officially opens and as they’ve done historically for years, manatees have come back to this section of Biscayne Bay along the Venetian Causeway looking for food.

“They’re in a critical zone. They’re in a manatee protection zone,” Alagarra said. “This is one of the only places left with seagrass in the area where manatees munch all day, have their babies.”

And it is there where once again the Miami Boat Show will host its sea trials, test drives on the water, staged on floating docks for 100 temporary slips over what is essential manatee habitat.

That doesn’t sit well with interim director of Miami-Dade County’s Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM) Rashid Istambouli. County staff loudly objected when county commissioners allowed the boat show to host the sea trails there last year.

“It’s no secret that obviously if we had any alternative, this area is not where we would want sea trials,” Istambouli said. “How concerned are we? We’re very concerned. We don’t want to see any injuries to manatees, we do not want to see any fatalities.”

Despite the same objections from DERM, last November commissioners unanimously approved a permit for the boat show to host its sea trials there for the remainder of their lease with the county, which doesn’t expire until 2029, unless a manatee is hit or killed. In that case the permit would go back before the commission.

At that November meeting, Commissioner Elieen Higgins said, “They did a wonderful job last year really following some very strict rules making sure our manatees were protected.”

But though no manatees were hit or killed during last year’s boat show, a Miami-Dade County report shows approximately 16 to 34 manatees were observed during last year’s sea trials and despite warnings to stop all activity on the water, many captains did not, unaware of the alerts that there were manatees in the area.

“As all plans, it all comes down to execution,” said Istambouli. “So a lot of this is going to have to do with how they actually execute during the event.”

Boat show organizers responded by reducing the number of slips by 50 and by reinforcing their manatee protection plan, which can be seen at the bottom of this page. There will now be a manatee spotter on all vessels, more manatee spotters on the docks and bridges, the drones in the sky will also be back.

Boat show producers say they’ve also enhanced the communication system to make sure everyone stays informed.

“We communicate constantly about the activity in the area,” said Larry Berryman, VP of Miami boating for Informa Markets. “If a manatee is spotted anywhere within the docks or within a boat, a message is relayed to all the boat captains will cease operation.”

If a manatee is spotted within 50 feet of the sea trail area, all activity on the water must stop immediately until that manatee is 50 feet away from the staging area or until a half hour has passed and that manatee cannot be seen anymore.

It’s very important that manatees cannot be harassed or shooed away by any of the vendors or boat operators, and anyone who violates that will have their sea trial permit pulled for the duration of the show.

Still, for activists like Dave Doebler, it’s more than just potential boat strikes that are worrisome.

“It’s gonna be like I-95, just jam packed full of boat traffic,” he said.

It’s all the noise and activity potentially scaring away hungry manatees.

“The manatees feeding, some nursing, they’re going to go away from noise, they’re going to want to go somewhere else,” he said.

There aren’t many options for a hungry manatee in the northern basin, where 93 percent of all seagrass is now gone because of pollution.

“It’s still a very difficult situation for the manatees,” said Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club.

It has been a divesting two years for Florida manatees. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 2021 was the deadliest on record, with more than 1100 deaths.

Last year 800 deaths were reported, with most of them starving to death because of the massive loss of sea grass across the state.

So far in 2023 there have been 67 reported manatee deaths.

Boat show organizers said they know how critical it is they get this right.

“We will do everything in our power to protect the natural resources because our industry depends on the water,” said Berryman.

Activists say they’ll be watching over them to make sure they do.

“What I want to know is how the Miami Boat Show is going to make Biscayne Bay better than when they found it,” said Doebler.

To show their commitment to the environment, boat show organizers pledged to be plastic free this year, with all food and drink vendors now only offering sustainable service items.

DERM, The FWC, Marine Patrol and U.S. Fish and Wildlife will be on the water during the sea trails to look out for manatees.

Activists are also encouraging residents to be vigilant and report any manatees they see in the area.


Miami-Dade County Report from 2022 Miami International Boat Show



Call: 311 or 305-372-6955

Social media: @miamidaderer @cleanthisbeachup

About the Author:

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