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04 • 20 • 2021

Surfrider Pushes Back Against Ports Preemption

By Holly Parker

Update: SB 426 has passed the state senate, but HB 267 is headed to the full House for a final vote. If you live in Florida, please take a moment and contact your state house representatives and ask them to vote NO on these undemocratic and damaging bills. Click here to send your email. 

The Florida Keys are home to the world's third-largest barrier reef and an ecosystem so fragile that it is designated a State Area of Critical Concern. For decades, local anglers, divers, and recreators have observed the negative water quality impacts from massive cruise ships in Key West. They have complained about increased turbidity and siltation of coral, as the ships kick up sediment in their wake. The ship channel runs directly through the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and in the immediate vicinity of some of the most sensitive ecological preserves in the hemisphere, including the Key West National Wildlife Refuge; Sanctuary Preservation Areas including Sand Key, Rock Key, and Western Sambo; and Western Dry Rocks. In fact, Key West is the only cruise port in the world with such a relatively shallow and narrow main channel, in such close proximity to coral reefs. 

When cruise ships stopped running due to COVID, locals noticed something amazing– local water quality was dramatically improved. This gave advocates the idea to push for new restrictions on cruise ships in Key West. After lots of public debate, voters in Key West passed three referendums to reduce cruise ship access to their port. Two of the referendums limit the size and capacity of cruise ships, and a third gives priority to ships with the best environmental and health records. The Surfrider Foundation's Florida Keys Chapter supported these efforts, and helped build momentum for their passage. Unfortunately, before the new amendments have even been enforced, the Florida Legislature is moving to overturn them and strip voters of their ability to regulate ports through ballot initatives.

Senate Bill 426 (Sen. Boyd) and House Bill 267 (Rep. Roach) seek to strip Key West of their recent ballot measures and take away the ability of local communities to regulate their seaports through ballot initatives. The Surfrider Foundation is strongly opposed to these efforts to strip Florida’s communities of the ability to manage their local ports. As the bills have moved through the committee process, Surfrider has testified against the bill in each of its committee stops and gathered opposition from environmental and water quality advocates across the state. More than two dozen organizations signed on to Surfrider's coalition letter opposing the bills, click here to learn more.

Despite this opposition, the bills have moved through the Legislature very quickly. In fact, in the final committee stop for SB 426, twenty locals from Key West made the nearly 700-mile trip to Tallahassee to express their opposition to the bill. The speakers were organized by Safer, Cleaner Ships, the group that spearheaded the local amendments, and included fishing guides, hotel owners, environmental advocates and elected officials, including the Mayor of Key West. Shawn Martin, Chair of the Florida Keys Chapter, was among the adovcates. He noted, “It was important for our chapter that we have our voice heard, so the trip to Tallahassee was a necessity. The people of Key West voted to create measures to support not just the local marine ecosystem, but our very way of life. We could not sit back while those in our supposedly representative government tried to overturn and silence the will of the people in the name of foreign business interests or the wealthy few. It was our duty as citizens and stewards of what is ultimately the lifeblood of this island to be heard.”

Update: SB 426 has passed the state senate, but HB 267 is headed to the full House for a final vote. If you live in Florida, please take a moment and contact your state house representatives and ask them to vote NO on these undemocratic and damaging bills. Click here to send your email.