The Miami International Boat Show plans to go big in Miami in 2022, and it’s sparked a fight with local regulators over manatee protections.
After hosting the show on floating docks off Virginia Key for four years and scrapping this year’s event as a precaution against COVID-19, the Presidents Day Weekend The show moves its main water element to several locations off downtown Miami.
Organizing the show at these locations requires construction of temporary docks for hundreds of slides on the bottom of the bay that Miami-Dade County has designated as Manatee Protection Areas.
That led to a spike this week in boat traffic and the risk of fatal manatee collisions when Mayor Daniella Levine Cava’s administration tried to block the Feb. 16-20 show from conducting test drives for more than 100 boats that the event wanted to make available for sea trials.
County environmental regulators have approved the construction of temporary marinas on manatee areas. But they said allowing the daily round trips of around 150 boats needed for sea trials across the five day event would be too risky for manatees feeding and swimming in an area already ravaged by a loss of seagrass.
Manatees, a Miami-Dade concern for the boat show
“It’s not just about crushing the manatees. It disrupts their behavior,” Lee Hefty, director of the county’s environmental branch, told commissioners on Wednesday. “If you’re a manatee with a little calf looking for food – and right now it’s a hell of a thing to try when there’s no seagrass – anything that disturbs your behavior through traffic ships disrupts your ability to survive.”
Miami-Dade commissioners overruled the hefty runs agency, the Division of Environmental Resources Management, and issued the permit without the intended “DERM” ban on sea trials.
Instead, the board approved a cap of 150 slips to be used for sea trials and asked the boat show to return for another approval before the 2023 show. The commission also asked DERM to produce a report on any impact on manatees from the 2022 show.
“It seems silly that 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 the coastline 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 performs on the water.
Miami Boat Show leaves Virginia Key for downtown
The former location of the boat show on Virginia Key is unidentified by Miami-Dade as a manatee protection zone. “Sea trials were not an issue at Marine Stadium because the area is not in critical manatee habitat,” Hefty said. Brian May, a Boat Show lobbyist, said the event has a limit of 250 slips that can be used for sea trials at the Virginia Key temporary docking facility.
In previous years, the boat show weekend involved the Downtown Miami Yacht Show and a separate Miami International Boat Show, but now the two events are combined under the same umbrella. The indoor main show exhibit returns to its longtime home at the Miami Beach Convention Center, while the overwater portion will take place downtown.
For 2022, the downtown location is expected to include floating docks off land formerly 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, “no sea trials are proposed,” prompting the green light from the county’s Division of Environmental Resource Management. Prior to expansion into a larger facility there in 2018, Miami-Dade authorized 99 sea trials there, Hefty said.
For 2022, the Boat Show wants a larger waterfront configuration at Miami venues than has existed in recent years. Instead of the approximately 630 slips in this area for previous events, the Boat Show requested 947.
County grants boat show dock permit for 2022 only
The larger temporary marina means more boats arrive before the event and more boats depart. Hefty said allowing the show to take customers to sea trials on a daily basis would mean too much of a spike in boat traffic compared to what happens there on a typical weekend day. Expanded footprint off Miami coincides with one year where Florida sees a peak in manatee deaths.
“It wasn’t something we thought was reasonable to do,” Hefty said of the sea trial permit.
Show representatives argued that it didn’t make sense to bring yacht manufacturers to a major Miami event centered on boat sales 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 attorney representing the show. “For us to lose sea trials year on year is just not sustainable for the show.”
An earlier version of this article misidentified Miami-Dade County Division of Environmental Resource Management Director Lee Hefty.
This story was originally published December 2, 2021 6:17 p.m.