White tines of lightning flashed above distant dark seas in the pre-dawn, as Key West Bar Pilot Alex Gonzalez stepped from the gunwale of a 40-foot pilot vessel into a side port on the cruise ship Majesty of the Seas. Within minutes the pilot was at the bridge of the giant vessel, giving the orders that would carry it safely to Key West Harbor and the dock that fronts the Westin Hotel.
It is a task that Gonzalez and other pilots have performed with less frequency in recent years as cruise ship companies reduce their port calls to the island city, sometimes for economic reasons and at other times to avoid the narrow 1-mile channel segment referred to as Cut B, which cruise ship proponents say must be widened by 150 feet to enhance vessel safety and keep Key West a cruise ship destination.
The Key West Chamber of Commerce was scheduled to make a presentation to the City Commission this week, outlining potential losses to the city as the number of cruise ship calls dwindle, a scenario the chamber holds as a foregone conclusion.
The presentation was postponed and is expected to be on the agenda Oct. 17 at a special City Commission workshop during which various voices from the public will be heard. The environmental organization Last Stand, which opposes the channel widening, will make its own presentation there.
The change in dates occurred because at least two commissioners -- Tony Yaniz was one of them -- approached City Manager Bob Vitas and said the presentation should not be made on a night when they were grappling with city budget matters. And one side of the story, Yaniz said, should not be all that is presented.
"I didn't want it to be the chamber's presentation," Yaniz said. "I want it to be a presentation by as many sides as possible."
Vitas relented and the change was made.
At issue for now is not whether the channel should be widened from 300 to 450 feet, but whether the Army Corps of Engineers should be commissioned to a do a $3 million study on the feasibility of such a project. The study, according to the chamber, would take three years to complete. There would be three tiers of review: socioeconomic, environmental and financial issues.
Half the bill, according to chamber Executive Vice President Virginia Panico, would be paid for by the federal government, 25 percent by private industry and 25 percent by the state of Florida.
But the city is needed to sign off on a request to the corps.
Panico expects the presentation to foster spirited discussion.
"Debate is good," Panico said. "We have always said this is information and education, not propaganda. All the presentations we have done were to make sure everybody has the correct information to make an informed decision. And that is the point of the study. If the study comes back and says this is not going to be the best thing, we've got our answer and it is done."
The hard numbers tell part of the story from the chamber's point of view. Nearly a half-million dollars was lost last year because cruise ships -- being fewer in number -- paid less to the city in disembarkation fees. That's the money the city charges per passenger, per ship, to make up for the costs of law enforcement, fire protection and road maintenance necessitated by the almost daily additions to Key West's population by the ships.
Businesses such as gift and T-shirt shops, especially those near the areas where the ships dock, are sure to be losing money with a decrease in passengers. But there are other businesses whose owners say could face economic ruin if the channel is widened.
"The impact for me would be immediate and crippling," said Nathaniel Linville, who sells fly-fishing related clothing and equipment at The Angling Company on Simonton Street. "You would tear a huge swath through the middle of a migratory lane, for hundreds of thousands of fish weighing 100 pounds or more each. There are two or three months when an incredibly large biomass is concentrated in that area. When you cut a hole in the middle of that it doesn't do any good for the natural world."
He said widening the channel would be "like putting water in a nice bottle of wine so that you can invite more people to the party."
Flats fishermen who bring tourists on charter trips say enough damage has been done to the sensitive environment of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary through dredging. Further damage would result in more dispersal of sediment, affecting fish populations.
"They dredged the channel in 1969 and re-dredged in 2004 or 2005," said flats fisherman and guide Kevin O'Hearn. "A lot of the fishing that happened in that area and elsewhere after that didn't happen anymore."
O'Hearn said if the study is done, there will be too much of an open door.
"The study just seems to me like the end run so the city can say we have already spent some money on this," O'Hearn said. "We're already in deep, so let's go ahead and dredge."
Fishermen also want to know where spoil from such a dredging would go.
The corps already weighed in with one report, delivered in 2010, which indicated "significant federal interest for national economic development in pursuing channel improvements."
"The report also noted significant environmental and legal challenges that would have to be overcome prior to any improvements being undertaken," former City Manager Jim Scholl told commissioners in a 2011 report, which summarized the issue as the city dealing with a cruise industry "replacing their older, smaller vessels with larger ships that are constrained by the width of the channel and unable to safely, consistently call in Key West."
Royal Caribbean, the report states, once represented almost half the ships calling in Key West.
"As their newer ships came on line that has dropped to 18 percent and is expected to drop further when the Majesty of the Seas is retired in several years," the 2011 report states. "Other lines such as Carnival, Disney, and Norwegian are also introducing new ships which are larger than the ships that currently call in Key West."
A public workshop was held in July 2011, similar to the workshop scheduled for October. Forty-one people spoke or sent written comments -- 21 for the channel widening, 14 against and six non-committed.
At that time the price of the study was estimated at $5 million, but the projected cost went down due to new procedures at the corps.
The problem channel-widening is intended to mitigate cannot be seen from the surface of the Atlantic Ocean as the ships progress toward the harbor. There, all that is visible as the sun comes up are emerald-green waters, some of them straying to Fort Zachary Taylor, where waves gently lap on the beach.
What occurs with the channel is below the surface, traced by the lines of a depth-finder at the pilot boat's cockpit.
The channel area that would be dredged most likely would extend to the right of where the vessels now transit, the bar pilots say.
A corps spokesman was unable to shed light on the feasibility study process, although a ranking staffer who works with studies said that generally the corps does the work itself, bringing in experts when issues require special handling, or if the work flow is too heavy for staff.
Opponents of the study say they don't trust the process.
"They have no reason to consider the environmental impact of the decision," said Linville of The Angling Company. "Given every economic indicator that I have seen, how do we try to solve our problems by dredging the channel and bringing larger cruise ships in here? It seems to me a little shortsighted."
But if the study is merely a way of obtaining information, as Panico states, then why should opponents of channel-widening oppose the study?
"There is a potential for an increased tolerance of environmental impact," said Linville. "It is geared to a specific type of business."
There is some good news on the horizon for people who wish to see Key West host cruise ships. Royal Caribbean confirmed Friday that its 965-foot Serenade of the Seas will begin making runs in the winter from New Orleans to the Bahamas, and one of the ports of call is Key West.