The 600-foot Pacific Princess, in front, would meet the proposed new cruise ship size criteria. Behind it is the 950-foot Grand Princess, which would not qualify. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Dear Editor,

There has been a lot of discussion surrounding large cruise ships in Key West and the potential economic impact of the referenda on downtown businesses. But what has not been covered is the environmental damage caused by large cruise ships and the harmful effect this has on the larger economy of small businesses that rely on a healthy marine ecosystem. 

The Lower Keys Guides Association is a non-profit, democratically run organization composed of 84 charter-boat owner-operators. Many of our senior guides and leaders in the fishing community have witnessed substantial change in our ecosystem over the decades. Larger factors have contributed to this decline, to be sure. But it is undeniable that the passage of hundreds of large cruise ships through our relatively shallow harbor and channel has caused profound negative impacts.

Key West Harbor is a unique marine habitat that connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Gulf of Mexico. The ship’s channel begins at the coral reef on the south and extends to the grass flats north of Key West. It is a vital migratory pathway for fish and marine invertebrates. Its health is inextricably linked to the overall health of the surrounding habitat. 

For decades, fishing guides have watched an ever-increasing number of ever-larger cruise ships coming into Key West Harbor, resulting in a massive disruption of sea-bottom sediment. Miles-long plumes of silt are routinely generated and deposited onto the coral reef as well as the seagrass flats. This has massively impacted what should be a thriving marine environment. Instead, fish populations are disrupted, and water clarity diminished.

The Murray Report, commissioned by the City of Key West and the US Navy, has described the seafloor bottom most impacted by cruise ships as a “blasted moonscape.” That report contains the same conclusion of many long-time fishing guides, that Key West’s historical tarpon fishery has been severely diminished. Our experience has shown us that the impact goes far beyond tarpon to include permit, grouper, snapper, and almost every other species. 

The consensus of the Lower Keys Guides Association is that the cruise-ship situation which has been tolerated here in recent decades is plainly unsustainable. If we are to have a beautiful, unique environment that attracts folks from all around the world and supports many Keys residents, both directly and indirectly, we must chart a course that bears in mind the fragility and importance of a healthy Key West harbor. 

We polled our entire membership and all votes we received were in support of the cruise ship referenda. We believe this compromise approach to limiting large cruise ships with their deep draft in favor of smaller, less impactful ships is the responsible environmental choice, and therefore the responsible economic approach as well.

— Lower Keys Guides Association

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