Ever since Miami city commissioners approved Ultra Music Festival's move from downtown to Virginia Key, environmentalists have worried about the impact on the island's federally protected wildlife. Festival organizers conducted wildlife surveys and put together an environmental plan — but now one leading environmental nonprofit is blasting those efforts as "completely insufficient."
In a letter sent Thursday to Ultra's organizers, Miami Waterkeeper executive director Rachel Silverstein writes that her organization is deeply concerned about the event's operation on Virginia Key. The festival's wildlife protection plans are insufficient, she writes, and its potential effects on wildlife may even violate federal and state laws banning harassment of threatened or endangered species.
"Given the ecological value of Virginia Key and the waters surrounding it, it is imperative that Ultra and the city of Miami take action to reduce the adverse environmental impacts caused by the festival," Silverstein writes.
In a statement, Ultra says it has made an unheard-of effort to ensure no harm comes to Virginia Key’s wildlife.
“There is no denying that the efforts undertaken by Ultra’s event organizers are unprecedented,” the statement says. “We have engaged one of the most highly regarded environmental consulting firms with decades of experience in order to fully address any and all species and habitat issues native to Virginia Key.”
Yet Silverstein’s letter claims animals such as manatees could be at risk. The festival's environmental plan notes that some animals might leave the immediate area because of the "temporary noise and light." Miami Waterkeeper argues that driving manatees out of their preferred foraging area could qualify as unlawful harassment, noting "there is no exemption built into the laws that allow 'temporary' harassment."
Silverstein says she’s also concerned about crocodiles. Ultra proposed putting crocodile "holes" in fences to allow the animals to move between fenced areas, but the letter calls that idea "unrealistic (and almost laughable) given crocodiles' avoidance of humans." Besides, crocodiles would have little chance of even locating and passing through the holes.
The letter says Ultra's plan pays too little attention to other animals that could be affected, including birds and even the residents of Miami Seaquarium, such as dolphins, sea turtles, sea lions, manatees, seals, and Lolita the whale.
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"It is clear that the environmental plan offered by Ultra is inadequate to meet the festival organizers' responsibilities under state and federal law," the letter concludes. It calls for changes including allowing environmental monitors to stop performances when needed to protect wildlife and reducing the volume of performances.
In an interview, Silverstein says she hopes festival organizers will consider Miami Waterkeeper's recommendations. And Ultra’s statement says it will, even though “our technical experts concluded that there would be no harm to any protected species or habitat.”
But Silverstein believes the volume and size of the festival ultimately make it incompatible with a wildlife habitat such as Virginia Key.
"I know that it moved from downtown because it was so disruptive to residents all the way into Brickell," she says. "And that's behind hurricane glass, blocks and blocks away, and it was still that disruptive to residents. Virginia Key was supposed to be set aside for wildlife."