Key West is a lot of things. While many know it as an open-container tourist town, fishermen and much of the local community know it as one of the most ecologically rich places in the country and a flats fishery that rivals any place on planet Earth. Today, however, those two ends of the spectrum are becoming more and more at odds. A lucrative foreign cruise ship industry is working to maximize its operations in Key West. So, last week, hundreds of concerned stakeholders and dozens of world-renowned fishing guides took to the main channel and docks in Key West to protest the mega cruise ships. However, this issue is not necessarily new, and goes deeper with layers of intentional environmental violations and powerful influence.
Cruise ships have been an everyday issue in Key West for decades. The Key West Chamber of Commerce lobbied to bring mega cruise ships to key west—and continues to do so—claiming it will improve the economy and local businesses. On the other hand, other Key West stakeholders are working to limit the cruise industry in Key West, because of its negative impacts. These mega cruises carry more than 1,300 passengers and, due to their sheer size, cause much more environmental harm than smaller ships.
Just think—bigger the ship, deeper the draft, more severe scars from constructive dredging (caused by the propeller’s propulsion/turbulence), more waste to dump offshore, etc. the list goes on. Simply put, the cruise industry, especially the scaled-up ships, can be quite harmful to coastal and marine environments.
Turbidity—dirty, muddy water that is substantially influenced by the cruise ships—negatively affect coral reefs and all sorts of marine life, threatening the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and other vulnerable habitats. More so, the daily cruise ship traffic leaves chronic water quality issues through the Florida Keys—a violation of the Clean Water Act no less.
For these reasons and more, the community of Key West has waged a two-decade battle against the industry’s biggest ships. In 2013, Key West residents resoundingly defeated a referendum that would have been a key first step for allowing dredging in Key West Harbor to better accommodate the larger ships. 73 percent of Key West residents voted “No.”
Fast forward a few years, and the COVID pandemic disrupts the entire world and global tourism comes to a screeching halt. For Key West, a city that most assumed to rely on global tourism through the cruise industry, an interesting realization occurred.
“Once the cruise ships were banned from Key West, the harbor and its live bottom that makes the harbor such an attractive place for marine life had a chance to heal,” said Captain Andrew Tipler, President of the Lower Keys Guides Association and owner of Last Cast Charters. “You see these ships’ propellers create a tornado of sediment that harms all these bottom-dwelling organisms like sponges, corals, and sea fans. Let’s not forget that this sediment tornado can choke out the flats and sea grass when the tides and winds are right. The sedimentation is a huge issue, and it was really remarkable to see how quickly the Key West ecosystem positively responded to the absence of the mega cruise ships.”
The city life improved. The harbor’s water quality dramatically improved, and marine life returned to harbor and thrived in adjacent habitats. This was all in the absence of the cruise ships.
While COVID inflicted great harm to the community and throughout the country, it allowed Key West to obtain an economic and environmental baseline of what life would look like without the mega cruise ships. Key West residents who knew the damage being inflicted by the cruise industry, now understood that their economy could pivot, and a more sustainable future was possible. The tourism economy would be able to continue even without the mega cruise ships.
So, last year during Florida’s 2020 election, Key West voters saw another series of cruise ship questions on their ballots. The three ballot measures involved banning ships with more than 1,300 passengers from Key West, limiting the daily number of visitors from cruise ships to 1,500 individuals, and giving preference to ships with the best environmental and human-health records.
Safer, Cleaner Ships spearheaded the ballot effort and has strong roots in this fight and Keys West. The grassroots organization is led by Evan Haskell (President), Jolly Benson (Vice President), Arlo Haskell (Treasurer), David Dunn (Secretary), and Will Benson (member at large), and work with a group of 2,500 commercial and recreational fishermen, business owners, and other stakeholders who care about the economic and environmental well-being of Key West.
It’s not too often you get commercial and recreational fishermen to agree on much. So, that should tell you something about how important this issue for the fisheries of the Keys.
The ballot initiatives and the group were not entirely anti-cruise ships either. They were just trying to limit the mega cruise ships that have outsized impacts from docking in Key West. Additionally, the smaller ships are best suited for Key West and have better health and environmental records than the mega ships.
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Last year, the Harbor Pilots Association (a group that directly profits from the cruise industry) went to federal and state court to keep the measures off the ballot. Both court systems rejected the Harbor Pilots Association’s challenges. Then, in November of last year, Safer, Cleaner Ships celebrated the approval of all three measures—with supermajorities (60% or greater) also. Once the pandemic eased, Key West would allow a smaller, cleaner cruise ship industry.
However, this past summer, the results of Key West’s election, the clear will of the city’s residents, was rejected. Governor Ron DeSantis canceled the referendums by signing a law, “prohibiting a local ballot initiative or referendum from restricting maritime commerce in the seaports of this state; providing that such a local ballot initiative, referendum, or action adopted therein is prohibited, void, and expressly preempted to the state.”
To make matters even more turbulent, Florida media outlets reported that Governor DeSantis received a $1 million donation to his political action committee from Mark Walsh, a business developer who operates one of the mega cruise ships docks and financed the opposition to the ballot initiatives back in November, 2020. Much of the Key West community was rightfully angry at the Governor, the legislature, and the whole system.
Until recently, however, Key West was free of the cruise ships and their impacts. That temporary relief ended several weeks ago, as ships returned to Key West. Safer, Cleaner Ships organized a demonstration to protest the arrival of the Norwegian Dawn, a 965-foot ship that held 2,134 people. Guides, stakeholders, and concerned citizens gathered near the docking cruise ship to protest the return of the harmful industry and witnessed first hand the massive sediment plumes.
Capt. Will Benson was on his skiff with the water component of the protest, fighting for his water and his home. This issue is personal for him. Like so many other fishing guides, he relies on healthy and abundant natural resources to make a living. The mega cruise ships threaten that, which is why he’s been engaged on the issue since almost the beginning.
Key West has given fly fishing so much over the decades. When most anglers think of big tarpon, they think the Keys and Key West. Few places give you the shallow water, fly fishing or light tackle opportunities that Key West affords. It’d be a shame for these mega, foreign owned ships to continue harming the amazing Key West ecosystem. If the fly fishing community has learned anything over the past couple of years, it’s that when anglers come together, things happen. Head on over to Safer, Cleaner Ships’ website to learn more about this issue and stay tuned for upcoming developments!
Cover picture by @Mark Hedden
Drone shots by Evan Haskell