Faced with yet another obstacle in the struggle to host a controversial boat show at Marine Stadium on Virginia Key, Miami city workers found a simple solution last month: chop it down.
Only one problem. Cutting mangroves without a permit is illegal.
A Miami-Dade County environmental regulator discovered the blunder in late May when he showed up to check out a pile of tree debris just west of the stadium. More than 300 feet of shoreline had been stripped of trees, including red and black mangroves which provide valuable protection from erosion and shelter for young fish and nesting birds. A city manager told him the work was being done to ready the site for the International Boat Show.
For boat show critics, who have complained bitterly about running the international show so close to fragile marine life and seagrasses where manatees graze, the mistake underlines their worries about potential impacts on Biscayne Bay from the show, long held at the Miami Beach Convention Center.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
“Every fifth- grader knows the value of mangroves,” said Key Biscayne Mayor Mayra Pena Lindsay.
The city was immediately ordered to stop work. The county is now drafting plans for how to restore the mangroves and mitigate for the destruction of some 2,000-square feet of canopy, said county spokeswoman Tere Florin. It’s not yet clear whether the city will face any fines.
When asked about the illegal removal, City Manager Daniel Alfonso said: "I did hear that we cut down some mangroves. If we screwed something up, we'll try to make it right."
In anticipation of the February show, the city is spending $16 million on the dormant stadium grounds. The National Marine Manufacturers Association, which hosts the show, has given the city $3 million for electrical upgrades and spent another $3 million on temporary docks.
The show, which must also obtain a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to move forward, is expected to draw a crowd of 100,000 with 1,500 boats. About 500 will be tied off to the floating docks, which span 268,400-square feet. Another 800,000-square feet of tents will house vendors.
Corps officials have warned that the docks, which could be left in place for up to three months, would block sunlight and affect marine line in about 55.45 acres of the bay.
Key Biscayne officials also worry about the risk to surrounding marine life created by boat traffic, including a plan for water taxis to ferry visitors.
“To have a conga line of water taxis during high season for manatees just begs the question: what are they thinking?” Lindsay said.
According to a June 12 memo, John Ricisak, supervisor of Miami-Dade County’s department for coastland and wetland resources, visited the site at the end of May and found 330 feet of shoreline cut back, leaving just one seagrape tree and patches of black mangrove.
Ricisak found a large pile of debris that included Australian pine and Brazilian pepper, both invasive plants, but also seagrape, sabal palms and red and black mangroves, native species of Virginia Key.
Mangroves have long been protected because they provide a critical barrier between land and water: their tangled roots help trap sediment and protect coastal areas from hurricanes while providing food and shelter for fish. Researchers found that reefs located near mangroves can have 25 times more fish, said Miami Waterkeeper executive director Rachel Silverstein.
Federal officials estimate that northern Biscayne Bay has lost 82 percent of its mangrove. Since 1996, cutting a mangrove in Miami-Dade County has required a county permit.
A city of Miami project manager told Ricisak the city had obtained a city tree permit, but those permits only cover upland trees. In fact, the city’s tree permitting site includes a link to a county landscaping plan that lists mangroves as protected. Trimming mangroves requires a permit because if done incorrectly, the trees die. Red mangroves tend not to regrow at all.
“That’s not an insignificant amount of mangrove,” Silverstein said.
“Mangrove restoration can be done,” she added. “But it takes a long time for any kind of restoration to get close to approximating an ecosystem that was lost, if ever.”
Miami Herald Staff Writer David Smiley contributed to this report.