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Are Key West Waters Clearer Without Cruise Ships? New Study Says Yes

Cruise ships docked at city-owned Mallory Square, left, and privately-owned Pier B, right.
Andy Newman
Florida Keys News Bureau
Cruise ships docked at city-owned Mallory Square, left, and privately-owned Pier B, right.

Advocates for limiting cruise ships in Key West say water quality improved while they were gone. A new study from Florida International University backs them up.

Improved water quality after cruise ships stopped visiting the island last March was one of the main arguments used in the successful campaign to limit cruise ship traffic to Key West.

But it was all anecdotal.

Now a study from a Florida International University researcher has backed up those claims.

The study by Henry Briceño of FIU's Institute of Environment assessed surface water clarity changes in Key West during the "anthropause."

It used data from the water quality monitoring program that FIU has been running in the Keys since 1995, as well as from satellites.

And it found that "median turbidity in surface waters south of Key West during the shutdown was significantly lower than the median of the previous 25 years."

"That would explain the generalized perception of the citizens of Key West that waters were cleaner (less turbid) since the shutdown began," the study states.

The magnitude of the changes is statistically significant but still "very small, underscoring the sensitivity of this ecosystem to even very small changes," the report states.

And it notes even those very small changes "swiftly cascade into observable changes in water quality perceived by Keys neighbors, and surely by the rich biota of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary."

The new report comes as the Florida Legislature is considering a bill that would overturn Key West's cruise ship limits. Holly Parker Curry, Florida policy manager from the Surfrider Foundation, told the House subcommittee on Local Administration and Veterans Affairs about the new study on Thursday.

"Last week 170 independent fishing charter guides signed on to oppose this bill. Two dozen environmental groups signed on to oppose this bill," she said. "What these groups have in common is water quality."

Key West attorney Michael Halpern also addressed the subcommittee. He said he was representing businesses that oppose limiting cruise ships — and that the new limits were not about protecting the environment.

"This was a movement by three or four wealthy people to change Key West to an upscale community and bar the working class from coming in," Halpern said.

More than 60% of Key West voters approved all three amendments to the city charter in November. The new rules limit the number of people who can come to Key West by cruise ship to 1,500 people a day. Ships are limited to a capacity of 1,300 people. And the city must prioritize ships with the best environmental and health safety records.

The new limits are in the city charter but have not yet been implemented, because cruise ships have not resumed sailing from the United States.

The subcommittee voted Wednesday to overturn Key West's new rules by a vote of 11 to six.

Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.
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