Facing South Florida: Key West Cruise Industry, Part 1

Jim DeFede spoke with Arlo Haskell, with the committee for Cleaner Safer Ships, and Capt. Will Benson of Fishing Guide about the cruise industry's efforts to undermine voters in Key West.

Video Transcript

- Now from CBS 4 News, this is "Facing South Florida" with Jim DeFede.

JIM DEFEDE: Good Easter morning to everyone. I'm Jim DeFede. And welcome to "Facing South Florida." Today, we are focusing on the efforts by Republicans in Tallahassee to overrule local governments and even discard the will of the people.

In November, the citizens of Key West passed three referendums to reduce the cruise ship traffic to the island. The first limited the number of cruise ship passengers who can come ashore to no more than 1,500 a day. That passed with 63% of the vote.

The second limited the size of the cruise ships that could dock to smaller cruise ships that carry no more than 1,300 passengers. That received 61% of the vote. And the third gives docking priority to cruise ships that have the best health and environmental records. And that garnered a whopping 81% of the vote.

Voters were tired of having these massive cruise ships tearing up the channel and damaging the waters that are vital to fishing and protecting the nearby reefs. Voters were also fed up with having the cruise ships just dump passengers into town for a couple of hours every day. They're like locusts, but locusts who don't spend much money.

And thanks to some great reporting by "The Miami Herald," we learned that the cruise ship industry pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars in dark money into secret committees to try and scare voters in Key West into voting against the referendums, with flyers telling residents they were going to die because police and fire services would need to be cut. It was a stupid and ugly campaign. And the voters in Key West saw through it and passed the three referendums easily.

But multibillion-dollar companies like the cruise lines don't accept losing. So they set their sights on Tallahassee, where their money buys them a lot of power and influence. And so the Florida Legislature is about to pass a bill that effectively cancels the Key West election and bars the city from doing anything like this in the future. Later in the show, I'm going to interview Republican State Senator Ana Maria Rodriguez, who represents the Keys. But first, I want you to hear from two of the leaders behind the campaign to pass the referendums, Arlo Haskell and fishing guide captain Will Benson from the Committee For Safer, Cleaner Ships.

ARLO HASKELL: And what they're trying to do in Tallahassee is essentially to overturn the results of a free and fair election in Monroe County. We had three referendums on the ballot that limit the size of cruise ships that can come in to Key West, limit the number of people that can come off each day, and that prioritize ships with better environmental and public health records. These, the referendums that we put into place were overwhelmingly supported by a super majority of local voters.

And they're essential to protecting the marine habitat down here. They're essential for protecting the reef and all the marine life down here. We have a very long, very narrow channel, very shallow channel and harbor.

And these big cruise ships come through and physically kick up the bottom. They displace the bottom. And they cause all kinds of problems, which our fishing guides are dealing with most acutely down here.

WILL BENSON: We are in hallowed grounds. In the sport of fly fishing and sports fishing, the Florida Keys is probably the most premier destination in the entire world. And this scene behind us and where we are right now is what we call affectionately the backcountry. It's a large shallow area in and around Key West to the north of Key West. And it's very shallow marine environment. It's filled with nursery for little fish and little critters, as well as home to the sports fish that we all love to target-- tarpon, bonefish, permit, sharks, barracudas, you name it.

If you're into site fishing and shallow water sports fishing, the sport was born here in the Florida Keys. And it's still the world's leading destination. And that's what we want it to stay that way. And that's why we're fighting so hard for this.

JIM DEFEDE: So tell me a little bit more about why you oppose what's going on in Tallahassee right now.

WILL BENSON: For a long time as we watched the ships get bigger and bigger and more numerous coming into port, we saw daily and increasingly the disturbance to the bay bottom in and around Key West. And Key West with its natural features, its deep water port and the channel that runs to the north of it, northwest channel, it's basically a mega intersection for marine life. This is where fish swim and currents flow. And it's just an amazing spot that holds a lot of marine life. And it's a very important sport to our fishing community down here.

And every time a big cruise ship comes through there, it disturbs the bay bottom and disrupts the fishery and has a negative consequence. And I think we introduced a good referendum that paved the future for Key West here. And the voters supported us by overwhelming margins. So I'm disappointed when you hear about legislators taking money and some 20 some odd lobbyists who are working this issue, all to steal the vote.

We don't want to say no to all cruising. We just want a balance. And that is nowhere more evident than in the harbor of Key West at 7 o'clock in the morning when you watch the tarpon coming in and you're out there fishing and a big ship comes through and the tarpon flee in terror for their lives. I mean, you can see it. It's right in front of your face.

It's just we've got to find a change here. We've got to make an adjustment, because let's be honest. I mean, we live here and people come here because of the water.

That's our brand. That's our product. That's what the Florida Keys is. And the Florida Keys is the gem of Florida.

You don't want to protect us when you're hearing from the experts that this is-- this is what we're seeing? I'm out there every single day. We're out here this morning. I can see what's happening right in front of my face. And we're asking for reasonable change. And you know we're just seeing moneyed interests steal the vote.

So yeah, it's disappointing. But you know what? We love this place. We care about this place. We know what's right for the future down here. And I think we're going to continue to fight the good fight.

ARLO HASKELL: This really is about the size of the cruise ships that have been coming to Key West in recent years. We're not against cruise ships per se. We're against the largest of the cruise ships that have been coming here.

There was a very comprehensive study done in 2005, commissioned by the US Navy in the city of Key West, that found that the ships that were coming through the channel at that time were causing this massive turbidity problem and causing a lot of problems in our environment. Since that time 15 years ago, the average cruise ship calling on Key West has gotten 30% larger. So even though we knew all these problems existed, even though we've got 100-page environmental study that talks about the problems they cause, ships get bigger and bigger and bigger.

JIM DEFEDE: What about the business interests in Key West who depend on having tourists come through, large numbers of tourists come from the cruise ships, into the far end of Duval, buy those $5 t-shirts and wander around, maybe spend a little money in the bar, and then get back on the ship and sail out?

ARLO HASKELL: We have a tremendous amount of support from the business community in Key West. You don't win 60% of the vote, 80% of the vote on one of our referendums without having a lot of business support. Most people in Key West, most business owners in Key West realize that high-volume, low-dollar cruise ship spending is not really what drives our economy down here.

JIM DEFEDE: You talk about the moneyed interests. Generally when it comes to Tallahassee, money will almost always win. Just these bills that would block the vote that was taken in Key West from being enacted have sailed through both the House and Senate committee and it appears likely to me that the governor would sign the bill at this point, because he generally favors imposing Tallahassee's will on local municipalities when business interests are at stake. So, I mean, what realistic chance do you think you have of being able to stop the multibillion-dollar cruise ship industry from just crushing you?

ARLO HASKELL: Yeah, it's-- it's a fight we're in here, Jim. It's a David and Goliath story. You've got little people down here in Key West trying to protect our fishermen, trying to protect our fish, trying to protect what we have that makes this place great, that people want to come and visit it all the time.

We were really frustrated and disappointed to see this bill introduced. We've been disappointed to see it passed through these committees. It's hard to see this thing progressing, everything we worked so hard for last year, knowing we have the overwhelming support of our community behind us down here, and to see it be threatened in Tallahassee.

We think it's going to wind up on Governor DeSantis' desk. And the governor has been-- promised to be during his campaign a champion of the environment and as shown as governor that he is that champion. And we're calling on the governor to help us to stand up for the little people, to stand up for the Floridians whose livelihoods are threatened by big corporate profits from foreign-owned cruise companies. We're asking for the governor to help us here.

WILL BENSON: And to stand up for home rule-- I mean, that's what I think of when I think of you Republican politics, is that when the voters speak at the most basic levels, that should matter. And there's this ugly trend in politics and in Florida politics to preempt voters at the local level and say oh, well, we need to come in and tell you what you need to do. We need to help you here because your vote is getting it wrong.

I just, I fundamentally disagree with that. And I think that look, the legislators that want to attach their name to this, that want to pass it through committee and vote for it, they're going to own this. This is stealing the vote from locals. And if you don't-- in Florida, it's happening to us right now in Key West. And if you don't think it's going to happen in your community when there's an issue that you care about, pay attention, because this is what happens. Big corporations rule the day in Florida.

And it's not about the environment. It's not about your business that depends on the environment if it runs into large corporate interests. And I think that there's a political-- there's a political fight that we're involved in. And we're standing up for responsible, balanced approaches here.

And if that's not enough in the state of Florida, to support small businesses like mine that are the real fuel for this economy-- and we did the right thing by going and having a vote, as opposed to seeking this kind of change in the courts, for instance, or something like that. We put it to the voters, which is the foundational principle of our democracy. And if they can't support that, I think it's time to have a really serious look at what's going on in Tallahassee and that kind of leadership, because to me as a Floridian and somebody who values business that's matched with sustainable environmentalism, that's just not going to work.

JIM DEFEDE: We'll be right back with State Senator Ana Maria Rodriguez.