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Without Cruise Ships, Key West Residents Are Enjoying A Quieter, Clearer Harbor

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In 2019, almost a million people visited the small island of Key West, Fla., by cruise ship. Since late March of 2020, the island, like the rest of the country, has had no cruise ship traffic. The whole industry was shut down by the pandemic. Now cruise lines are preparing to start sailing in the U.S. again as soon as this summer. As WLRN's Nancy Klingener reports, Key West would like that restart to be on a much smaller level, but the state of Florida has other ideas.

NANCY KLINGENER, BYLINE: On most evenings, the Key West harbor front is packed. Hundreds of people head there to admire the sun sinking into the Gulf of Mexico. Artists sell their work. One performer juggles fire. Another balances a bike on his head.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Come on, everybody. Let's start the show.

(APPLAUSE)

KLINGENER: Out on the water, there's a big catamaran on a sunset cruise. A round boat shaped like a tiki hut with a bar in the middle motors past. Fishing boats head in for the evening. But one kind of vessel is missing. For decades, cruise ships were an almost daily sight in Key West Harbor, but none have sailed in the U.S. in more than a year. If Key Westers have their way, the big ships that towered over the low-lying town are over. Last November, residents voted to limit cruise visitation. Julia Gonzales has lived here for 20 years. She's selling silk scarves, masks and bags at the sunset celebration on the harbor. She says she doesn't miss the cruise ships.

JULIA GONZALES: I'm enjoying it, actually (laughter).

KLINGENER: Why is that?

GONZALES: Well, primarily because the beaches look more beautiful now - the ocean when I've been out there snorkeling. Just everything seems just fresher and cleaner and just better, you know? It was very mucky for many, many years and just slowly deteriorating. And now I feel like, what a change.

KLINGENER: Gonzales isn't the only one who's noticed. Will Benson is a local fishing guide. He says the area around Key West Harbor is a major thoroughfare for tarpon, an important game fish for the Keys.

WILL BENSON: People come from all over the world to catch a silver king on fly.

KLINGENER: But Benson says in recent years, the silt stirred up by cruise ships pushed out the tarpon and smothered the seabed.

BENSON: It makes the bottom of that channel like a blasted moonscape.

KLINGENER: Like Gonzales, Benson noticed an almost immediate improvement after cruise ships stopped sailing last year. All those reports from locals were anecdotal until a researcher from Florida International University released a new report. FIU's measured water quality in the Keys for 25 years. They found the water quality improved after cruise ships stopped sailing compared to the median conditions from the previous 24 years. In surface turbidity, the cloudiness in water was significantly better. The study did say that 2020 was not the only year with less turbid water and that the magnitude of changes was very small but that the ecosystem was sensitive to even those small changes.

More than 60% of Key West voters approved limits on cruise ships, but they may not have the last say. The Florida legislature is debating a bill sponsored by Representative Spencer Roach to take away the city's ability to regulate cruise ship traffic.

SPENCER ROACH: You can't simply have a group of 10,000 people closing down the port of Key West and also saying a million people a year cannot visit the state of Florida, Key West. That's wrong.

KLINGENER: So far, it's been approved by every committee it's been before in the House and Senate. The Florida legislative session runs until the end of the month.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Klingener in Key West.

(SOUNDBITE OF KORESMA'S "NEW FRONTIER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.