Key West at a Crossroads


credit: Arnaud Girard @

Next week voters in Key West, Florida will decide whether or not the Key West City Commission can conduct a Feasibility Study designed to determine the environmental and economic impact of widening the city’s main ship channel. Widening the channel has been deemed necessary by some locals (aka “conchs,” a nickname that refers to the overfished snail) in order to allow bigger cruise ships to make Key West a port of call. As a former resident of Key West – I lived there from first through third grade – and a concerned scientist, I have been following this story over the past few months.  Here’s my take on the issue.

Key West is a city that depends on tourism, so it seems natural that conchs would want to facilitate the transit of cash carrying visitors. Yet, much of this tourism relies on the fact that Key West is one of the most tropical places one can find in the US and its warm, shallow waters teem with life. The island city is located in the middle of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which encloses the third largest barrier reef in the world and the only one in the United States. So, it’s also understandable that many conchs would oppose any action that would threaten an ecosystem that already bears its share of insults (overfishing, climate change, coastal development).

I guess the decision about whether to widen the channel or not has a lot to do with what locals want from their Key West. Do they want to their commercial district to consist of wall-to-wall trinket stores offering t-shirts that read “I’m with stupid,” or do they want to foster local artists and fisherman who offer a glimpse into what the Keys really are, a biodiversity hotspot­ and our closest connection to the Caribbean. Ok, to be fair the city already has enough trinket stores that walking down Duval Street is not so much fun, except possibly during Fantasy Fest.

So what exactly would the environmental impact of widening the Key West channel be? Aside from directly removing organisms that live on the seafloor, dredging – essentially shoveling out a deep passageway – would bring an incredible amount of sediment from the bottom of the sea into the water. Sure, a lot of sediment would be hauled away to be used for some other purpose (maybe to fill in a marsh or create a new island), but a lot of it would end up suspended in the water. This would decrease the amount of light reaching the bottom, reducing the ability of corals and seagrasses to photosynthesize. The sediments would eventually settle, but much of it would “land” in areas where corals reside and potentially bury them. The combined effects of blocked sunlight and a blanket of sediment could only harm the corals that form the foundation of an entire ecosystem. Moving forward, the bigger cruise ships will bring more people to Key West, which will undoubtedly put more pressure on coastal habitats through land, water, and energy usage.

To get a glimpse of what suspended sediments look like in Key West and how many local fishermen feel about the referendum and the ecosystem, check out these videos.

It’s amazing how much sediment is kicked up when big-ass cruise ships move through the channel, but imagine how much sediment would be lifted off the bottom if the channel was dredged. And, would even bigger big-ass cruise ships continue to kick up sediments as they chug into Key West Harbor after dredging?

I initially figured the referendum to be a sneaky way for the City Commission to get the channel dredged, perhaps by spinning the Feasibility Study results. But after reading a recent piece in a local newspaper, it seems like the referendum may be even more insidious (although I hope it ends up as a boneheaded move). It turns out (SURPRISE) that dredging in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is prohibited and it may not be possible to conduct a study even if the referendum passes. This either leaves the City Commission looking like they missed a major memo or like they are planning ahead. At this point, it really seems like the referendum is just a way to start the processes of lifting the ban on dredging by forcing a view of public support and economic incentive.

The Florida Keys and the surrounding waters are a national treasure and deserve protection from overdevelopment. Living there as a boy inspired me to study marine ecology and I go back as often as I can to explore and fish with old friends. But, the area is drastically different than it was even twenty years ago and thinking about what it will look like in the future is worrying at best. I totally understand that local businesspeople want to keep their businesses strong and continue to make Key West an incredible tourism hub, but there has to be a balance that takes into account both the flow of tourist dollars and the natural capital that makes the Keys what they really are. I hope the citizens of Key West realize this when they go to the polls next Tuesday.