Key West has been a port of call for many a vessel ever since the island was discovered. It has a couple natural harbors, a channel running from the ocean to said harbors, and with the attachment of the island to the mainland, provides a good spot for a layover. Small vessels, cruisers, quite a few Navy and Coast Guard ships, and of course, those beloved cruise ships make use of the waterside facilities of Key West. But it’s those cruise ships that are causing the latest kerfluffle here on the rock. Here is the story:
The cruise ships have been coming to Key West for quite awhile now. They come out of Miami, the Gulf ports, and sometimes from across the pond. They come in, tie off along the Bight and Mallory Square, and dump their passengers off to explore the island. The ships that dock directly in front of Mallory have to leave the port by late afternoon, by law, so as not to interfere with sunset. The others can stay over night or longer if they wish.
The whole idea behind the cruise ships landing here is that when the passengers come ashore, they will spend money on our fair island. And for some businesses, they do profit from these people. Some of the larger watersports companies, bike tours, and of course the obligatory t-shirt shops, do turn a bit of a profit. The larger watersports companies have entered into contracts with the cruise lines so they get all the advertising while the smaller companies can only hope for some overflow. But for everything else, the cruise ship tourists don’t do shit. They pay the one time charge for the boat which includes their lodgings, food, drinks, and in some cases all their entertainment needs. Cruise ship tourists are notoriously cheap, having spent all their money for the cruise, they have no need nor desire to spend any money on shore.
For the most part, when the ships stop in port, the tourists get off, and just walk around the immediate area of the port. Many are foreign so they ain’t going far. They go down to the big plug at the southernmost point, take a few pictures, walk back up Duval, maybe buy a t-shirt, or hit a museum if they have a discount coupon, then get back on the ship for supper, and when they get home, brag about how they saw Key West. In terms of numbers, about 800,000 tourists a year come and go on these cruises. But their financial impact is minimal.
The city makes some money off this venture with port charges, tourist taxes and other fees. But for the most part, all the cruise ships do is fill the streets with lost tourists and leave the businesses with empty cash registers.
In order to get safely into the harbor area where these big ships can dock, there is a channel that runs about 4 miles from the open ocean through the reef system and to the channel. It’s about 35 foot deep or so, very narrow with tricky currents, and requires the services of the harbor pilots to get the big ships into and out of the port safely. But now for the kerfluffle.
As big as these ships are, there are more bigger ones, the mega cruise ships. The really big ones. Keep in mind that from the other end of Key West, on the southeast side, you can see the tops of the cruise ships that already dock here, that is how large the ones are that come now. But the cruise line companies want the bigger ships. Problem is, the channel is not wide enough nor deep enough to allow these monsters to make it in. Solution?
Dredge the channel and make it deeper and wider. No big deal, except said dredging will destroy a huge amount of of bottom, grass, coral, and other sea bottom, like it isn’t damaged enough already. The proximity to the reefs, the fact that the surrounding area is full of underwater wildlife along with endangered grasses and corals, all of that will suffer massive damage if the dredging is approved. Not that any of that matters when it comes to money and corporations. The cruise lines are all doing the usual song and dance on this one. Dredge the channel, make it deeper and wider, so our super liners can come in and bring more tourists and business to Key West. Don’t dredge, and we may take all our cruise ships and go someplace else, which will be fine with a lot of people, including this little fritter.
There is also the issue that said dredging will take place in a marine sanctuary, a protected area. And that is where things stand at the moment. No dredging can take place because it is illegal. But there is a referendum coming up for a vote this fall to allow a study to made by the Army Corps of Engineers to see what impact dredging the channel will have. If they determine that it won’t do any unusual damage to the reef and bottom, then the ban on dredging may be lifted, and the channel deepened and widened.
As you may have noticed by the image above, click it for the link, there is a grass roots campaign to defeat the referendum in the fall election. I see that sign all over the island when I ride around. This project is not very popular among the majority of people on this island. Problem is, as is in most cases like this, the minority, those who favor dredging, are also the ones who control the money. The businesses that actually profit from the cruise business. And they ain’t gonna stand by and allow something as minor as a democratic and fair election get in the way of making more money. (And you all know how I feel about elections). One way or another, they will get this channel dredged. It just may take a while.
Never the less, the fight goes on and it’s gonna get nasty, especially if the referendum is approved. Too many people with too much money, care too little about what kind of damage will be done if the channel is dredged and those super liners start coming here. The money that they supposedly will bring in to Key West is an illusion. The damage will be real. And the damage cannot be undone. Once that bottom is ripped up, it will never come back, at least not while humans remain the dominant species on the planet.
It’s just a goddamn shame that Key West is going in the direction it is going. The developers, the corporations, those who believe that profit trumps all, continue to destroy something that was once very special and unusual. You see it downtown as eclectic little shops are replaced with chain outlets. One off lodgings become parts of national hotel chains, cool little marinas become cookie cutter resorts with no character, catering only to a select few. Those who came here and made Key West a special place, the writers, the artists, the drag queens, the street performers, the live aboards the pirate bloggers, the square pegs in the round holes, are being replaced by worker bees in corporate uniforms, trained to obey the corporate policies, to not think as an individual, to become one with the hive, with a single purpose in mind, more corporate profits.
Key West is not designed to be a big city. It’s a small island, a village more than anything else. It has inspired more than a few people to live life just a bit differently than the worker bees do on the mainland. When you come here you can feel a difference in the way of life. Even traveling up US 1 a few miles beyond Stock Island, you can see and feel how different life is here. But it’s quickly disappearing. The whole pirate mentality, the artists, odd balls, the quirkiness, it’s all vanishing into the past. Replaced by corporate rules and regulations. Homogenized and sanitized like every other city in the country. The whole island mystic is being replaced by ad buzzwords and corporate slogans. It’s all sizzle and no steak.
I’ve been coming here for nearly 40 years, and lived here for 2. And I have experienced first hand, especially this summer, how badly this little rock is being fucked up. This dredging issue is just another step. It’s going to have far reaching consequences for the reef system and eco system surrounding it. But as I said before, profit trumps all.
At least I can say I was here before it all went away.