Miami-Dade County

Fed environmental review adds to Miami boat show move questions

A view of the Miami Marine Stadium, facing west
A view of the Miami Marine Stadium, facing west

Federal environmental regulators are raising red flags about plans to move the Miami International Boat Show to long-abandoned Miami Marine Stadium, saying it would put seagrass and other marine life at risk.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — in an initial review of plans to build floating docks and walkways big enough to cover more than four football fields — found that the project would cause “substantial” harm to Biscayne Bay bottom where fish and other marine life live. The docks would be left in place for up to three months, long enough to block sunlight vital to seagrass and affect other species in about 55.45 acres of the bay, the Corps said in a response to a request for a federal permit for the work.

The comments from the Corps come as the boat show, housed for decades at the Miami Beach Convention Center, wrestles to secure a new home in the historic stadium on Virginia Key — a location adjacent to a wildlife area so fragile that even kayaks are banned.

The Corps’ response seemed to mystify both critics and supporters, who said they only learned this week of the month-old document, which is a request for public comment before the agency issues a final decision. The comment period ends Friday. Corps officials were not available for comment.

“I’m not aware of what you’re talking about,” said Cathy Rick-Joule, vice president of the National Marine Manufacturer’s Association, which operates the show. “I’d like to put my eyes on whatever it is you’re talking about.”

The proposed move has already encountered rough waters after plans surfaced in the wake of a failed effort by a preservation group, Friends of Miami Marine Stadium, to use private money to cover a $30 million renovation of the funky bay-side stadium, where stars like Jimmy Buffett once performed. The group offered the boat show as an anchor tenant. When the deal collapsed, the city of Miami and boat show operators quickly struck a deal to host the show at the stadium.

But the new plan quickly drew fire from nearby Key Biscayne, which sued to stop the show and argued traffic would clog the only road leading on and off the island. Village lawyers also argue the stadium was supposed to be operated as a public park used for civic purposes, not commercial uses.

With this latest round, environmentalists have joined the chorus of critics. Virginia Key, an historic nesting ground for sea turtles, has long been been the subject of conservation efforts, with various groups working to restore and protect habitat around the island, including mangrove wetlands and hardwood hammocks onshore and seagrass meadows and reefs offshore. Before the boat show is allowed, more information is needed on the potential damage, they say.

“The documents don’t cover all the information we’d like to see about impacts,” said Miami Waterkeeper executive director Rachel Silverstein. “It’s always risky to be approving plans and permits without all the information.”

Despite concerns, Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado has said the old stadium is the best place to house the show.

“The City of Miami is invested in the boat show and its future at Miami Marine Stadium Park and I am confident that together, we will not allow any distractions to deter us from building a world-class boat show,” he said in an statement last week.

Rick-Joule also said boat show operators, who have worked with regulators for 30 years, would comply with whatever the Corps requires.

“Its boaters who are our nation’s original conservationists as they have a vested interest in protecting our waterways for future generations,” she said in an email.

The Corps posted the permit request on April 17. According to the request, plans call for installing 268,400-square feet of temporary floating docks and walkways that would affect Biscayne Bay, where endangered Johnson’s seagrass is protected by law. The boat show asked to erect 833 temporary vessel slips and a temporary mooring field to hold 63 vessels. The slips and mooring field would require over a thousand pilings along with 63 temporary anchors.

According to a February survey, no Johnson’s seagrass was found in the boat basin, but divers did find five other types of seagrass that supply habitat for marine life. The basin also sits just south of a 700-acre Bill Sadowski Critical Wildlife Area, where tidal flats provide foraging grounds for manatees and disappearing sea birds.

Critics worry that in addition to the temporary structures, traffic in and out of the area would trample fragile areas used by seabirds and manatees moving from the Miami River to graze on seagrass and other vegetation around the island.

“The impacts gets bigger and bigger and there’s been so little transparency and open communication with residents,” said Key Biscayne Mayor Mayra Lindsay. “We are concerned that decisions are being made and we don’t have all the information we should have.”