This weekend, more than 1,300 boats will make their way to Virginia Key — by land and by sea — for the 76th edition of the Miami International Boat Show. For boat lovers, it’s a seafaring extravaganza.
But not everyone is pleased about the arrival of the annual trade show. Last year, the show made the move from the Miami Beach Convention Center to Miami Marine Stadium Park, and many environmental groups fought the relocation, citing risks to local wildlife and the delicate waters of Biscayne Bay.
Despite the boat show’s compliance with regulations and a favorable report from Miami-Dade County's environmental agency, advocates remain concerned about the short- and long-term impacts to the area's highly sensitive ecology. Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve, Biscayne Bay National Park, and the Bill Sadowski Critical Wildlife Area are all within arm's reach of Virginia Key.
Key Biscayne Mayor Mayra Peña Lindsay says she isn't against the boat show per se. She just thinks an event that attracts more than 100,000 attendees needs a more suitable venue than one-road-in, one-road-out Virginia Key.
"There's just this lack of vision," she says. "I understand that NMMA [National Marine Manufacturers Association, the boat show's host] is an out-of-state company and they may not be that familiar with our area. They also don't have to deal with the year-round impact; they do their business, they make money, and they get out, while we’re stuck with the consequences." NMMA is based in Chicago, but has a local office in Miami Lakes.
So what exactly is the environmental footprint of the show? According to a report prepared by Miami-Dade’s Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), the show's impact is minimal. The 2016 report reads, “The DERM review of the pre- and post-event bay bottom surveys verified that the boat show has not resulted in adverse impacts to seagrass resources."
Ben Wold, show manager for the Miami International Boat Show, says the show abides by permits from the Army Corps of Engineers, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and DERM — all of which prohibit detrimental effects to the environment. "The DERM permit allows us to display 800 boats in the Marine Stadium basin," Wold says. "During the 2017 show, we have approximately 550 boats in the water. This is more than last year but less than our permit allows.
"It’s worth noting boaters are some of our nation’s original conservationists. As an event produced by boaters for boaters, protecting our waterways is of the utmost importance, as it always has been," Wold adds. "We are proud of the work we do to produce a show that protects and respects our waters so they can be enjoyed for generations to come."
Environmentalists, however, argue that the DERM report's scope is too limited. “Unfortunately, funding has not been provided to adequately monitor and evaluate the boat show activities for short- or long-term negative environmental impacts," Tropical Audubon Society conservation director Erin Clancy says.
"Secondary impacts, like the increased turbidity from all the boating activity associated with the boat show [water taxis, demonstrations, etc.], take time to materialize and are best captured by aerial photography," she adds.
In addition, Clancy says, boat show activities increase the risk of injury to manatees. The DERM report acknowledges that a manatee was killed by a boat during the timeframe of the 2016 Miami International Boat Show, though the manatee was found in an area outside the show’s limits and the offending boat was never found. “The boat show has increased the number of wet slips through the years, increasing the impact to the adjacent critical wildlife area and to the local manatee population,” Clancy says.
This battle between environmentalists and boat show and county officials, though less intense than it was last year, continues to simmer. In early 2016, the Village of Key Biscayne sued Miami-Dade County over its approval of the boat show's move, arguing that Miami Marine Stadium Park is designated for “parks and recreation” use, not commercial efforts such as the boat show, and the suit is still pending.
According to the 2010 Virginia Key Master Plan — a joint project between members of the public and city and state agencies — the area surrounding Miami Marine Stadium is labeled an "Open Green Space Park," yet it’s currently paved over to accommodate boat show exhibition tents.
The show also interferes with nearby public recreation such as rowing and canoeing for several months, Clancy says.
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In the future, Clancy says, the Tropical Audubon Society would like to see a more comprehensive biological monitoring plan as part of the permit process for the show. That way, the show's impact could be more highly scrutinized. "The monitoring should include pre-, post-, and annual aerial photography for seagrass distribution within the Rickenbacker Basin (from the Intracoastal Waterway east to Virginia Key) and the adjacent Critical Wildlife Area."
Mayor Lindsay says she wants Miami Marine Stadium Park to be returned to the public. “At the end of the day, the biggest letdown is that this is a public waterfront park that has been turned into a private showroom for an out-of-state company,” she says. Lindsay cites the importance of public green space for the health and wellbeing of locals — and the fact that Miami ranks near the bottom when it comes to parks per capita based on city size.
“We are a tourist-driven economy, and our waters and our bay are incredibly important,” Lindsay says. “We’re all connected, and it impacts everyone. We want to make sure we’re not making short-term decisions that affect the quality of life for everyone in the long-term.”