Key West Votes to Ban Large Cruise Ships Citing Economic and Environmental Impact

Key West      Photo: Tore Sætre, Wikimedia CC

By Amy Lupica, ODP Contributing Writer

The environment was on the ballot this year, as we have noted.  Interestingly, last week voters in Key West, Florida voted to ban large cruise ships from docking there. The new ban aims to reduce the potential for COVID-19 exposure in the Keys, as well as give local marine life some time to recover from the damage done by large boats in the region. The ban is expected to have positive impacts on the marine environment, but it will also affect the post-pandemic cruise industry. Key West voters don’t want to ban all cruise ships; 81% support limiting ship docking to only boats that have sterling safety and environmental records.

Why This Matters: The marine life of the Florida Keys — particularly its famed coral — is in crisis. A recent report showed that some of Florida’s coral reefs have only 2% of the coral populations they once did. Scientists blame pollution and warming waters for this rapid decline. A separate report found that the 390 ships that annually dock in the Keys contribute to poor water quality, harming reefs and wildlife including lobsters, conch, and other species on which the local fishing industry relies. Recreational and commercial fishing in the Keys supports 8000 jobs, and declining marine life populations threatens the economy far more than the loss of cruise ship business. While cruise ship passengers comprise 50% of visitors to the Keys, they only contribute to 8% of its economy

Small Towns, Big Ships

Like many communities around the globe, Key West has seen a resurgence of wildlife during the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this year, locals formed the Key West Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships, a grassroots organization that aims to balance the environmental and economic goals of the region. Smaller, more environmentally friendly ships tend to cater to high spending customers, who will bring income and business to the economy of Key West without the destruction brought by cruise liners.

Key West is not the only city to ban cruise ships. In 2019, Venice, Italy banned large cruise ships from entering the city’s historic center. However, conservationists felt that the ban was not ambitious enough to prevent further erosion of Venice’s canals. Residents in towns around the world including Santorini, Greece, and Mallorca, Spain, have also organized to reduce or ban large cruise ships in their cities, many citing environmental impact. In Santorini, the amount of garbage on the small island doubled in just five years, primarily due to tourism brought by cruise ships.

The Future of Florida Cruises

According to the Miami Herald, the ban means that 40 of the 50 cruise ships that docked in Key West last year won’t be allowed to return. Those ships include cruises from Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, Disney Cruise Line, and Carnival Cruise Line. Luxury cruise lines like Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, and Silversea meet the new docking criteria and will be allowed to dock in the future. Some expect the city of Key West to be the target of lawsuits from the cruise industry in the near future.

The people of Key West, however, are excited to see the ships go, including Arlo Haskell, the treasurer of the Key West Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships. “The people of Key West are thrilled to finally have some common-sense restrictions in place after 30 years of unregulated cruising that has damaged our environment, hampered economic growth, and threatened public health,” he said.

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