As large cruise ships return, Key West locals decry environmental harm, state preemption
Travelers debarking from cruise ships in Key West this Saturday will be treated to many enchanting sights, from serene, teal waters and sandy beaches along the island’s edge to numerous restaurants and entertainment hot spots for which it is renowned.
They’ll also no doubt notice that not everyone there is happy with their arrival — or, more specifically, the manner they came to port.
As they did in December, members of the Key West Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ship, a group opposing so-called mega-cruise vessels in Key West waters, have organized a rally Saturday to protest the arrival of three incoming ships.
All three ships are significantly larger than those Key West residents voted in 2020 to restrict from visiting the city. The largest of the vessels, the Edge-class Celebrity Apex, is more than 1,000 feet long and carries some 4,200 passengers and crew — well over the 1,500-person ships voters demanded.
According to the ship-tracking website CruiseMapper, one of those three ships and two others of similar size are scheduled to arrive the following weekend and the weekend after.
The rally will be held at 10:30 a.m. at Mallory Square, a short distance from the Port of Key West.
“We are doing everything in our power to continually communicate to the cruise industry and cruise passengers that the people of Key West voted in a free and fair election to place common-sense limits on the size of cruise ships that can call here,” Safer Cleaner Ships Treasurer Arlo Haskell told Florida Politics. “Any large ships not meeting those limits that sails into Key West is doing so in violation of the consent of the people of Key West. They are coming into a port where they’re plainly not wanted.”
A vote undone
More than 60% of Key West voters in November 2020 approved three ballot initiatives that resulted in binding amendments to the City Charter. Within six months, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law “prohibiting local ballot initiatives or referendum from restricting maritime commerce in the seaports of this state.”
The bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Ed Hooper, restricts local governments with “any port that has received or is eligible to apply for or receive state funding” from approving ballot measures limiting ship types, sizes or capacities; the number of passengers or crew allowed to enter the state or jurisdiction; and the source, type and amount of cargo the ships may carry.
Some state lawmakers, like Rep. Spencer Roach of North Fort Myers, applauded the move, arguing the seaport shouldn’t receive federal funds earmarked for cruise industry aid if the city limits how the industry can operate there.
Others fellow Republicans like Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez of Doral and Rep. Jim Mooney, who represents Key West, opposed it, citing concerns over environmental impacts.
Those concerns aren’t unfounded. A new study by the University of Miami confirms what many environmentally conscious residents of coastal communities in Florida and the Caribbean have suspected for years: Microbes associated with stony coral tissue loss disease, which has become widespread since first appearing in waters off Miami in 2014, likely rests in sediment. When dredged from seabed floors and tossed atop aquatic fauna, those pathogen-rich dregs have been found to cause signs of the disease in as little as 24 hours.
It’s hardly a great stretch of the imagination, then, to draw a link between the uptick in massive cruise vessels whose arrivals muddy Key West’s waters and the vanishing coral off the island’s coast, said Will Benson, a professional sea captain, fisherman and member of the Lower Keys Guides Association.
Huge ships are a bad match for the shallow, narrow channel leading into Key West, said Benson, a Safer Cleaner Ships member.
“They come into the turning basin right next to the pier, and they run their propellers and generate a massive amount of disturbance and sedimentation that destroys the bottom and dumps the sediment both on the north and south,” he said. “Beyond that, the ships come through what is essentially a migratory corridor for lots of spawnng fish, game fish, sponges, sea fans and crustaceans — lobsters, crabs and so forth — which need a hardbottom habitat. With those cruise ships constantly coming through and disrupting the bottom, it removes all of those important features, so it’s no longer safe or comfortable for a variety of marine life, and we’ve seen a disruption in their migratory patterns and overall productivity.”
Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Dawn arriving in Key West on Dec. 6. Image via Safer Cleaner Ships.
The preemption from Tallahassee, Haskell said, is just evidence of a growing disconnect between state policymakers and the localities their decisions impact.
“Landlocked Tallahassee thinks it knows what’s good for beach, coastal and island communities all over the state, including a town 600 miles away, and they have the power to do what they want,” he said. “What happens when people hold an election? They can just throw out the results.”
The cruise economy
Like other parts of Florida, a sizable chunk of Key West’s revenue depends on tourism. But according to several residents and local officials, there’s a misconception among outsiders about how great of a contributor the cruise industry is to the economy.
One employee of a popular Key West bar told Florida Politics that beyond the first few blocks from where they dock and a handful of other businesses, cruise ships and their passengers have little impact on the local economy.
Despite an ongoing pandemic, Key West enjoyed a record year in sales tax revenue in 2021, bringing in 35% more than it did in 2019, which then was an all-time high — all while cruise ships were nowhere to be seen, Haskell said.
“Over the past couple of years,” he said, “we’ve seen how insignificant or irrelevant the cruise economy is to the Florida Keys.”
Key West Mayor Teri Johnson corroborated Haskell’s claim but acknowledged that a few businesses, including Historic Tours of America and the Hemingway House, which remains a frequent attraction for drive-down traffic and as a wedding venue, have suffered during the lull.
“We have had a couple of businesses that are impacted, which we knew would be. We talked to as many people as we could about it,” she said. “When you have a global pandemic, and you’ve got a situation that we’ve been in the last two years, there are many things that require you to change your business plan. Those two businesses certainly are in the crosshairs of cruise ship travel, but that’s the reason so many businesses in Key West that also benefited to some extent from cruise ships changed their business plan.”
Not all locals agree. In December, business owner Steven Nekhaila told the Miami Herald he attributed the surge in business over the last two years to closures of other vacation destinations due to COVID-19.
“I don’t think it’s wise to anticipate this continuing, he said.
But there’s a happy medium, Haskell said, and it’s already working. He said cruise companies that bring smaller vessels to Key West are welcome, such as those whose ships like the 700-foot Journey have capacities of 694 passengers and 390 crew members.
“We welcome those ships to continue calling here and always have. It’s those big, environmentally destructive ships that aren’t welcome,” he said. “Cruise lines love to talk about how they are partners in the communities they visit, but this is a blatant example. Any large cruise ship that comes to Key West is not, in fact, a partner of this community. They are the enemy of this community.”
Shortly after DeSantis signed the bill upending the 2020 decision by Key West, Safer Cleaner Ships, which sponsored the ballot measures, suggested a potential workaround. Because the state law applied only to local ballot initiatives and referendums, not how port authorities can regulate and operate their facilities, the group posited the City Commission could still pass restrictions by ordinance.
That’s how Monroe County Commissioner Holly Raschein sees it as well.
“While referendums that restrict maritime commerce were voided, local ordinances were not restricted by the bill passed last year,” she told Florida Politics by text. “Tourism is an important contributor to our local economy, but I do think it’s important that we find a way to strike a balance between welcoming visitors to our islands and protecting our unique way of life. From what I have seen, the City is collaborating with all of the stakeholders and determining how best to achieve that balance while not unnecessarily impacting those businesses that depend on cruise ships.”
In July last year, Key West Commissioners directed City Attorney Shawn Smith to draft an ordinance capping the size of ships allowed to enter the port and the daily number of passengers permitted to disembark onto the city’s docks.
Smith said the move might invite lawsuits.
Nearly seven months later, that ordinance has yet to arrive. But it should soon, according to Johnson, who expects a first reading of the item to occur Feb. 15. After that, the city will seek community feedback “so that it’s a people’s ordinance.”
Among the things that stalled the item’s progress is a development and cruise ship contract with Pier B, a privately owned cruise ship dock whose contract with the city expires in 2025. Former Key West City Manager Greg Veliz raised concerns in mid-2020 over whether changes to the city’s port rules would extend there.
“There are lots of circumstances that have changed since the development agreement was signed,” Johnson said. “I know as a direction that the City Commission gave to our outside counsel and City Attorney was the fact that we want to craft an ordinance that respects the will of the people and their three votes — and which is also legally defensible. But Tallahassee has now made that exponentially more difficult.”
Johnson is referring to twin bills in the Legislature this Session that, if signed into law, would allow businesses to sue local governments over changes to ordinances that result in a proven 15% loss of profits.
The Senate measure by Palm Coast Sen. Travis Hutson passed Jan. 27 with only one Republican, Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, voting no. Its House analog, sponsored by Dover Republican Rep. Lawrence McClure, is heading to its final committee.
Johnson said the legislation reeks of hypocrisy.
“If it was such a good piece of legislation, why hasn’t the state applied that to themselves, that local municipalities can sue them when they initiate legislation that impacts us?” she said. “It’s a one-sided law that clearly benefits every single attorney in the United States and doesn’t really have much rational thought behind it.”
In overruling Key West’s local control, state lawmakers have set a course for growth that localities can’t keep up with, Benson said. That leaves concerned residents with limited options.
“It’s up to us to stand up and use our First Amendment rights to enact change, and that’s what we’re seeing with the protests on Saturday,” he said, adding that the protest won’t be aimed at cruise passengers. “We’re very open to tourism. It’s simply the way in which they’re getting here.”