To apply for a change of regulations or permit would require a full environmental impact statement (a major study) under the National Environmental Policy Act, Morton said.
Many backcountry fishing guides, including Capt. Will Benson, say they already know from their experience with the Navys project that dredging there disturbs the nearshore fishing and a key spawning area for tarpon.
When the Navy dredged, they removed soft corals, sponges and sea fans, basically the living bottom that made it comfortable for fish to be there, he said. Since then there has been a decline in fish. It really would be the kiss of death to make the channel bigger.
Cruise ships also kick up silt that moves in the water column and settles on habitat, says Will Benson, who created a 12-minute film in January called Silver Lining that has a scene showing a giant, long plume of silt that happens every time cruise ships come in and out. The video can be seen on the website worldangling.com.
And if down the road the dredging is approved and it engenders a multi-year construction project estimated at $36 million in the 2010 reconnaissance study (including $24 million for mitigation), there is no guarantee from the cruise ship lines that when the channel is done in 15 to 20 years that they will bring more ships to Key West, or even that they will continue at the same levels as they are now: about 330 ships per year.
In March, Carnival Cruise Lines indefinitely rerouted two of its ships, the Fascination and Ecstasy, from regular port calls in Key West to stops at a private island in the Bahamas owned by competitor Royal Caribbean Ltd.
People think if we build it they will come, but people should wake up and finally realize the best thing we have going is the natural environment, Will Benson said. We need to protect and support that.
Key West gets high marks from the passengers, most who never venture out on the water. We had a great time, said Chiho Chan of Philadelphia. He and his friend Alex Fong rented scooters to tour the island, visited the Hemingway House, window shopped and ate at Wendys.
Danny Marty of Miami and his friends barhopped with a stop at Sloppy Joes. He also splurged on a gold-colored pair of $200 designer sunglasses.
But many say the approximately $80 plus million that cruise ship passengers spend in Key West is not worth it, especially if they detract from the experience of the other tourists and snowbirds who pump $900 million annually into the local coffers.
And now that Key West is doing so well attracting tourists year round, with the states highest occupancy rates (more than 80 percent) and highest average room rate (more than $200), the cruise ship passengers who roam Old Town are not nearly as critical in the slow times as they once were.
On a muggy hot Friday early afternoon in September, once a deadly slow time in Key West, Duval Street was still packed with people even after the horn had sounded and Victory was slowly motoring down the channel to its next destination.
But in Key West, cruise ships have been controversial since 1969, when the first one, called Sunward, arrived.
For the most part our town is very tolerant, Jolly Benson said. But Ive never seen so much response on a single issue. Weve turned ourselves from a quirky fun town into a cruise port. The world is curious to see if Key West will sell out so a few people can chase some extra dollars.