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By land and by sea, protests greet latest big cruise ship to call at Key West

Protesters holding signs and flags in front of the Norwegian Dawn cruise ship in Key West.
Nancy Klingener
Protesters gathered at Mallory Pier in Key West as the Norwegian Dawn pulled in at Pier B.

About 200 people gathered at Mallory Pier in Key West Thursday morning to watch the Norwegian Dawn pull into the privately-managed Pier B, next door. Meanwhile about 20 small boats were in the harbor.

They waved flags carrying the logo of Safer, Cleaner Ships, the group that organized a petition drive that led to last year's referendum on regulating cruise ships.

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More than 60% of Key West voters approved of limiting the number of people who could come to the island by cruise ship to 1,500 people a day, the capacity of ships at 1,300 people and required the city to prioritize ships with the best health and safety records.

Those limits were overturned last spring by the state Legislature, which passed a law banning the regulation of ports by voter initiatives.

The crowd chanted "respect our vote!" as the 915-foot Norwegian Dawn pulled in, carrying 2,134 people — 1,061 passengers and 1,073 crew members.

Erin Rust was there with a sign that said “we voted no.” She said local conditions improved during the 20 months the ships were not visiting the island.

"The quality of dives got a lot better, the quality of fishing got a lot better, it was back to like our island life down here and it was slow-paced like we like it," said Rust. "And having things this big and this many people here, it does, it takes away from the experience and it kind of ruins it. We want people to visit Key West, just not thousands every day."

Fellow protester Susan Rouf held a sign that said "you are welcome — your ship is not."

"Passengers, I welcome them but please come by a smaller ship, a safer ship, a more environmentally sound ship," she said. "Save our reef."

The cruise ships stir up plumes of sediment as they make their way into Key West Harbor via the shipping channel. It's an area fishermen say is crucial for fish making their way from the Gulf of Mexico into the Keys and the Straits of Florida.

And they say that silt smothers sea life that can't get away, like seagrass and coral.

Tom McMurrain manages Pier B. He acknowledged that the cruise ships stir up the silt, but said it dissipates "pretty quick."

He said the protesters just down the waterfront had the right to to express themselves.

"It's a democracy. They can protest, they can do whatever they would like to do. That's their right," McMurrain said.

But he said the primary causes of coral die-off are global warming, development, overfishing and coral disease — not cruise ships.

The Key West City Commission has been discussing for months how it could regulate cruise ships. Key West is a city-owned port so the commission is, essentially, the port authority.

The commission recently hired outside counsel to help draft new ordinances. A city workshop is planned for 5 p.m. Monday, Dec. 13, with the sole agenda of providing guidance to the city manager and city attorney about cruise ships.

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Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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