[Be sure to click through all the images in the gallery above.]
If you hit it right, Key West can be one of the best tarpon fisheries in the world. That becomes apparent in the opening of a new short film written and produced by Key West guide and filmmaker Capt. Will Benson. Silver Lining opens on a windless flat-calm morning as large fish roll as far as the eye can see. The images are breathtaking. Anglers hoot over screaming reels and holes left in the water by leaping chrome-plated monsters. Some of the best tarpon action I’ve ever seen. Yet the tone quickly changes as large cruise ships enter the scene. Filmed from above, they are shown trailing huge silt plumes as giant props blow sediment from the seafloor into the water column in Key West Harbor.
Key West’s year-round tropical climate, its unique geography, its expansive reef system and the abundance of life that depends on those reefs are what make its tarpon fishery so extraordinary. The harbor’s deep water serves as a staging point for an amazing annual tarpon migration. Those fish come up into the adjacent flats to feed, offering fly-rodders an exceptional opportunity to target them. Yet, as is too often the case, such ecosystems are fragile and easily disrupted by the heavy hand of man. Corals, sea grass and other marine plant and animal life found on the seafloor depend on sunlight for photosynthesis. If the sunlight is blocked, it doesn’t take a scientist to figure out what happens. There’s a general consensus among anglers that continued disturbance of the silt has led to continued degradation of Key West’s tarpon flats.
The Florida Keys are part of a federally and state protected marine sanctuary and host the only barrier reef in the United States. Just about everything within this marine sanctuary is protected, including the seafloor. Thus, when a recreational boater damages sea grass on even a small scale, that boater could face state and federal penalties. So, it’s hard to understand why the cruise ship industry is not held liable under the same laws.
Key West Harbor was last dredged in 2005. A great number of corals, sponges and sea fans were removed; that loss of natural filtering systems compounded the siltation problem. Anglers experienced a simultaneous decline in the number of tarpon and noticeably shorter tarpon season. The tarpon fishing survived the 2005 dredging, but there is a new, forceful push to implement a much larger channel-widening/dredging project that would accommodate the cruise ship industry’s latest and largest cruise ships, which require greater maneuverability to pull into Key West. Benson says there are about 40 ships in the Caribbean basin; Royal Caribbean is the only company that has “megaships,” and only three of them are too long and draw too much water to fit in the current ship channel. If the channel is not widened, those three ships will not stop in Key West, but every other liner can still use the harbor.