In the chilly winter months, manatees migrate down the coast of Florida to winter over in Central and South Florida waters. Some of these waters in our lagoons and estuaries are defined as “essential manatee habitat”, which is a habitat that supports manatee resting, feeding, foraging, mating, and loafing. This is the habitat that helps keep them happy and healthy.
Humans also migrate down in the chilly winter months to frolic in our warm sunny paradise. One mid-winter event that attracts scads of locals and out-of-towners is the February boat and yacht show, which attracts crowds of people gawking at and hoping to buy one of the thousands of boats that are displayed at the event. It’s a lot of boats at once. Last year, the boat show sponsors located the event in essential manatee habitat. Out of concern for impacts to manatees, the Commissioners approved, and DERM authorized, a permit for sea trials in 2022 only. The event sponsor was told to move the 2023 show away from the manatee essential habitat!
This year, the 2023 Boat Show is proposed again in essential manatee habitat, near the Venetian Causeway off downtown Miami, and near the mouth of the Miami River where manatees go to find fresh water. This means that sea trials will again impose an elevated risk to manatees. Because of the potential for manatees to be harmed by all these boat trips, the County’s Department of Environmental Resource Management recommended once again that the test drives not take place in essential manatee habitat. The issue was heard at the November 1, 2022 Board of County Commissioners meeting. Not only was the public unable to comment in opposition of sea trials, the Board of County Commissioners unanimously overruled their technical staff’s impartial recommendations. Further, they went so far as to approve sea trials for the life of the permit, which expires in 2029. They will only revisit whether sea trials are appropriate at this location if a manatee is hit or killed.
Hundreds of boats speeding through the essential habitat means that manatees would be subjected to greater threats. It’s not just that the manatees risk being hit and killed, it’s also the fact that the traffic, noise, and pollution disrupt their normal behaviors and can prevent them from traveling in and out of the river when they seek to forage, mate, and find fresh water. We can’t risk any additional manatee deaths or disruption to their normal behavior that sea trials could cause by putting significant powerboat traffic on the water. All the while, manatees are facing food shortages across the state – including in Biscayne Bay, where up to 93 percent of seagrass has died off in some areas.
It’s been a rough couple of years for manatees.
While manatees were reclassified from endangered to threatened in 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared an Unusual Mortality Event in 2021 as a result of an unprecedented increase in manatee deaths. In 2022, elevated mortality rates for manatees continue to be documented throughout the state. Protecting their habitat is necessary for their recovery.
The annual Boat Show is important and it connects people to the water, but sea trials are too risky for manatees in this area.
Stay tuned for updates.