John Wells: Legislation would not give state control of Key West port

Economic benefits of maritime commerce extend far beyond the locality of a port.

As a native Key Wester and local ships’ agent, I want to share why Senate Bill 426 and House Bill 267 are a vital protection for Florida’s deep-water ports.

As major economic drivers, not only for the region in which they are located, but the state as a whole, international and waterborne commerce should not be subject to shifting political winds.

During the last election, three local referendums were passed in Key West that significantly limit the size and capacity of cruise ships. These referendums effectively exclude 94% of all cruise ship traffic already scheduled into the Port of Key West.

This will have devastating impacts on local businesses, the workforce, and Key West economy.

According to data collected by the Greater Key West Chamber of Commerce, cruise passengers account for more than 20% of tourist spending in Key West when you do not include the cost of lodging, and local cruise spending accounts for more than $90 million per year. This will be a significant loss to businesses and to the city’s budget, which will lose millions of dollars in disembarkation fees.

It is the hope of those who pushed for these referendums that the smaller cruise ships Key West is now expecting to attract and their passengers, who pay higher per diems, will be sufficiently wealthy to spend more in town.

However, this highlights how the size restrictions they designed will exclude larger ships with lower fares that allow people of moderate means to enjoy a Key West port call.

Intentional or not, the promotion of ships catering to the well-to-do over those carrying people of modest income is a form of economic discrimination. And that is not what Key West and its One Human Family have ever been about.

These referendums were also billed as a necessary compromise to protect the environment, but their very language prevents the most environmentally advanced ships from calling on Key West because of the strict size restrictions. And those that wrote the referendums that effectively shut down our port have never produced any data or scientific report that shows cruise ships cause damage to the Keys environment.

In fact, even though ships have not visited the Keys since last March, our beaches have continued to be classified as having “poor” water quality by the Florida Department of Health. In reality, a report from Florida Atlantic University’s 30-year study cited land-borne pollutants as the absolute cause of the decline of Florida Bay and nearby coral reefs.

SB 426 and HB 267 will effectively undo these ill-conceived referendums in Key West and protect our port from similar issues in the future.

After all, the economic benefits of maritime commerce extend far beyond the locality in which a port is located, contributing $117.6 billion in economic value to the state, and our ports should be regulated with that statewide impact in mind.

Just as important as what the bills do, is what they don’t do. The bill does not hand control of ports over to the state or any agency and it does not prevent port authorities from continuing to conduct their business operations.

If passed, the only change would be that city governments and local referendums would no longer be able to alter international, waterborne commerce in Florida.

Sen. Keith Perry, during a recent Senate committee hearing on the issue, was rightfully concerned that Key West’s referendums could open a Pandora’s box that threatens the continued flow of commerce in Florida.

That is why I encourage the Florida House and Senate to pass, and all Floridians to support SB 426 and HB 267.


John E. Wells is chair of Caribe Nautical Services.

Guest Author


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