Florida Keys News
Wednesday, September 4, 2013
Cruise ship fight gets Italian connection

Activists in Key West and Venice, Italy, have banded together to work toward stopping bigger cruise ships from coming to their towns.

Comitato No Grandi Navi -- which loosely translates to "the committee for no big ships" -- in Venice and the Key West Committee for Responsible Tourism issued a joint statement Sunday, saying larger cruise ships not only negatively impact the natural environment of the two iconic port cities but wreck the visitor experience.

"The scale of the vessels far exceeds anything that these historic ports were built to accommodate and their sheer size overwhelms the historic setting, diminishing the visual appeal and sense of place," the formal statement said.

"They are experiencing the same things we are," said Jolly Benson, of the Committee for Responsible Tourism. "We reached out to them and they agreed to form an allegiance with us. Both cities are seeing their culture and way of life diminished and both are seeing the very real effects these larger ships have on our sensitive ecosystems."

The joint resolution comes a month before Key West voters will decide whether the Army Corps of Engineers should study dredging the island's main ship channel in order to accommodate larger cruise ships.

Dredging is currently a prohibited activity in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

The city of Key West could apply for a permit to dredge, but that would start a process that would require extensive research and investigation to determine if it would be allowed.

Sanctuary superintendent Sean Morton has said there isn't any permit category on the books to allow dredging for economic benefits only.

Those opposed to the ballot question argue that widening the channel to accommodate larger cruise ships does not fit any of the sanctuary's criteria for dredging.

The environmental group Last Stand on Monday urged all Key West voters to defeat the referendum.

Last Stand cited the comments made by Morton at a forum the nonprofit last month. Upon cursory review, sanctuary staff did not find a permit category within the regulations governing the sanctuary that would allow for new dredging, Morton said.

Eric Bush, chief of the Planning and Policy for the Corps of Engineers Jacksonville office, said at the forum that his agency will not pursue funding a study unless the Army Corps gets a head nod from the resource agencies like the sanctuary, which appears to be unwilling to give at this time.

Last Stand has consistently supported the reasons for establishing the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary -- environmental protection and preservation, groups members said in prepared statement Monday.

If the referendum passes, Last Stand and members of the Citizens for Responsible Tourism have raised concerns that channel widening supporters will use the results to lobby federal legislators to change sanctuary regulations to allow dredging, group members have said.

"Last Stand cannot support any efforts to lobby Washington to weaken the FKNMS regulations that protect critical habitat for coral species covered under the Endangered Species Act," Last Stand Board President Naja Girard said in a statement.

Jennifer Hulse, an attorney who helped form the Greater Key West Chamber of Commerce's political action committee backing the study, argued that Key West has lost nearly 30 percent of its cruise ship business since 2003, going from having about 1 million passengers each year then to 700,000 these days, she said.

"The reason for that is the restrictions on the channel," Hulse said. "This (economically) effects every aspect of our community."

Cruise ship companies are phasing out the smaller ships like the ones that come to Key West and replacing them with ones that are too big to come to Key West, because the channel has not been widened, Hulse said.

This week brings two separate forums on the topic.

Citizens for Responsible Tourism will hold a presentation on the referendum and answer questions about the cruise ship industry's impact on local taxes and jobs at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Key West VFW club, 2200 N. Roosevelt Blvd.

The Chamber of Commerce will hold a forum on the referendum question at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Westin Resort, 245 Front St.

tohara@keysnews.com

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