Why is Key West referred to as the Conch Republic? Because in 1982, there was a blockade set up on US1 right were the northern part of the Overseas Highway meets the mainland in Florida City. Every car was stopped from leaving the Keys and searched for illegal immigrants, which was the government’s response to the Mariel Boatlift. This blockage severely damaged the tourism industry and basically paralyzed Key West’s economy for a time. So the city of Key West briefly declared its independence from America as the Conch Republic! The conch symbol is still heavily celebrated in Key West and remains one of our most prominent symbols.