Ballot Initiatives Could Restrict Cruise Ship Calls in Key West

Efforts to ban cruise ships in Key West Florida
Cruise ship in Key West at sunset - Yinan Chen/Wikimedia

Published Jul 16, 2020 9:42 PM by The Maritime Executive

Long a popular port for cruise ship passengers, some residents of Key West, Florida are looking to take advantage of the current pause to address their long-simmering complaints about cruise ships. Before the suspension in cruising, Key West had projected over 400 cruise ship calls with approximately 900,000 passengers during the 2019-2020 cruise season.

Cruise passengers have regularly visited the famous American tourist destinations since the 1960s. Twenty years ago it was estimated that nearly a half million cruise ship passengers visited the city each year. As the ships grew larger and more people arrived in the port, complaints began to surface. There have been efforts such as restrictions saying the cruise ships had to be out to sea before sunset so as not to block the view of the sunset from the pier.

Now, the Key West Committee for Safer, Cleaner Ships, was established as a Florida not for profit corporation, and they have been successful in getting enough signatures on a petition to add three propositions to the November ballot. They call for a limit of 1,500 person (passengers and crew combined) permitted to go ashore in Key West each day, restrictions on the size of the cruise ship to just 1,300 persons (supporters estimate that this would be a cruise ship with approximately 850 passengers or less), and to give priorities to the cruise lines with the best environmental and health records.

The referenda as written, would have eliminated 95 percent of the cruise ship calls at Key West in 2019. Just 22 cruise ships would have met the limitations proposed in the referendum. They estimate that it would have resulted in a 98 percent decline in the number of passengers, just 18,000 going ashore in Key West in 2019 under the proposed limitations.

The committee cites the well-publicized outbreaks of COVID-19 on cruise ships in 2020 as well as the impact of the larger ships on the environment. They are saying that cruise ships cause chronic water-quality issues for Florida’s Keys. They also say that the cruise ships stir up silt plumes that damage coral, seagrass and marine life.

The Key West Bar Pilots Association recently filed suit in U.S. District Court seeking to block the three proposed amendments to the city charter. They argue that the effort would effectively end cruise ship calls in Key West and that the authority to regulate the port belongs to the state and federal governments.

The supporters of the proposals responded by saying that the citizens should have the right to vote on the measure. They argue that their proposals would not stop the cruise industry but limit the size of vessels so as not to overwhelm the local community and reduce the impact on the environment. Some people are also arguing that Key West needs to focus on the tourists in the hotels and guest houses who traditionally spend more money in the city than cruise ship passengers.  

Many questions however remain to be answered as the dispute moves into the courts. Key West has three piers, one of which is privately owned. One of the many questions, is if the ballot proposals were successful could it be extended to the privately-owned pier or if it only would apply to the city piers.