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Miami Boat Show is moving downtown, and into a fight over manatee protections

·4 min read

The Miami International Boat Show plans to go very big in Miami in 2022, and that’s sparked a fight with local regulators over protecting manatees.

After running the show on floating docks off Virginia Key for four years and scrapping this year’s event as a COVID-19 precaution, the Presidents Day Weekend show is moving its main on-the-water element to several spots off the shore of downtown Miami.

Staging the show at those locations requires constructing temporary docks for hundreds of slips over bay bottom that Miami-Dade County has designated as manatee-protection zones.

That led to a flare-up this week over boat traffic and the hazards of fatal manatee collisions when the administration of Mayor Daniella Levine Cava attempted to bar the Feb. 16-20 show from conducting test drives for more than 100 boats the event wanted to make available for sea trials.

The county’s environmental regulators endorsed constructing temporary marinas over the manatee areas. But they said allowing daily back-and-forth trips of roughly 150 boats needed for sea trials throughout the five-day event would be too risky for manatees feeding and swimming in an area already ravaged by a loss of sea grass.

Manatees a Miami-Dade concern for Boat Show

“It’s not just running the manatees over. It’s disrupting their behavior,” Lee Hefty, director of the county’s environmental arm, told commissioners Wednesday. “If you’re a manatee with a small calf looking for food — and right now it’s a heckuva thing to try and do when there are no sea grasses — everything that is disrupting your behavior through boat traffic is disrupting your ability to survive.”

Miami-Dade commissioners overruled the agency Hefty runs, the Division of Environmental Resources Management, and issued the permit without the ban “DERM” wanted on sea trials.

Instead, the board approved a cap of 150 slips to be used for sea trials, and required the Boat Show to come back for another approval ahead of the 2023 show. The commission also asked DERM to produce a report on any manatee impacts from the 2022 show.

“It does seem silly we’re not going to be allowed to use the boats during the Boat Show,” said Commissioner Eileen Higgins, who represents District 5, which includes shoreline on both sides of Biscayne Bay.

Sea trials involve licensed captains taking potential buyers out on a boat for sale to demonstrate how the vessel operates on the water.

Miami Boat Show leaves Virginia Key for downtown

The Boat Show’s prior location on Virginia Key is not identified by Miami-Dade as a manatee-protection zone. “Sea trials were not an issue at Marine Stadium because the area is not in essential manatee habitat,” Hefty said. Brian May, a lobbyist for the Boat Show, said the event had a limit of 250 slips that could be used for sea trials at the temporary Virginia Key docking facility.

In prior years, the boat-show weekend involved the Miami Yacht Show downtown and a separate Miami International Boat Show, but now the two events are combined under the same umbrella. The main show’s indoor expo is returning to its longtime home at the Miami Beach Convention Center, while the on-the-water portion will be downtown.

For 2022, the downtown location is planned to include floating docks off the land once occupied by the Miami Herald as well as around the Sea Isle Marina north of the Venetian Causeway.

Those county permits approved in 2018 for the downtown location stated “no sea trials are proposed,” prompting a green light from the county’s Division of Environmental Resources Management. Prior to the expansion into a larger facility at that location in 2018, Miami-Dade allowed 99 sea-trial slips there, Hefty said.

For 2022, the Boat Show wants a larger waterfront set-up at the Miami locations than what was there in recent years. Instead of the roughly 630 slips in that area for prior events, the Boat Show requested 947.

County grants Boat Show dock permit for 2022 only

The larger temporary marina means more boats coming in ahead of the event, and more leaving. Hefty said allowing the show to take customers out on sea trials daily would mean too dramatic of an increase in boat traffic over what’s there on a typical weekend day. The expanded footprint off Miami coincides with a year where Florida is seeing a spike in manatee deaths.

“It was not something we felt was reasonable to do,” Hefty said of the sea-trial permit.

Show representatives argued it made no sense to bring yacht manufacturers to a major Miami event centered on selling boats without offering sea trials.

“We need sea trials for the viability of this show. They’ve been a staple of the show for decades,” said Spencer Crowley, an Akerman lawyer representing the show. “For us to lose the sea trials from one year to the next is just not tenable for the show.”

An earlier version of this article misidentified Miami-Dade County’s director of the Division of Environmental Resources Management, Lee Hefty.

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