Cruise Ships in Hot Water

By Jean-Michel Cousteau

As many of us know, cruises are a great way to get away from it all. But lately we have been reminded that, on this planet of finite resources, you can't escape nature's environmental limitations.

Last spring, Royal Caribbean Cruises pleaded guilty to 21 counts of routine and deliberate dumping of hazardous wastes in U.S. waters and was fined $18 million.
Ship waste has been monitored for years. What makes this case so disturbing is that the industry has spent a lot of time and money instituting guidelines for ecological responsibility.
In the old days, waste was simply dumped overboard. The ocean, after all, was an infinite sewer. As we started to learn more about dumping impacts on the biosphere, the shipping community was encouraged to find a better way to dispose of its refuse. The U.S. Clean Water Act, the Act To Prevent Pollution From Ships, the London Dumping Convention and other regulations of the International Maritime Organization now help mariners navigate a sea of limitations on waste disposal.

But there is still pollution. Cruise ships are floating hotels-some are small cities-and generate large amounts of waste. In the course of a one-week cruise, hundreds of thousands of gallons of waste is dumped directly into the sea.

This effluent often contains harmful substances. According to a report prepared by the Earth Island Institute, "graywater" from showers and other drains can contain detergents and pesticides that can cause eutrophication, or oxygen depletion, in marine environments. Concentrated sewage may contain chlorine and formaldehyde. Paint, solvents, batteries and dry-cleaning sludge, which contains perchlorethylene, a known carcinogen, also find their way into cruise ship waste streams.

Surprisingly, dumping all that waste is perfectly legal as long as it occurs outside the limits imposed by the port nation. In the U.S., the distance is three miles for raw sewage. Limited amounts of solid waste, such as plastics and food waste, may be dumped within 3 and 25 miles of shore. Hazardous wastes should not be dumped, but as "small quantity generators," cruise ships are not required to describe the nature or quantity of the waste they dispose of. In those cases where hazardous waste logs are kept, they are easily falsified, as the Royal Caribbean case revealed. And graywater may still be dumped anywhere.
Recent events have brought the issue to a head:

  • In February, a report of the U.S. Congress' General Accounting Office cited 104 cases of illegal dumping.
    In the summer, testing of air and water in Alaskan ports revealed shocking levels of pollutants coming from cruise ships-fecal coliform exceeded federal standards by nearly 100,000 times.
  • In California, a major cruising hub, a new law will pave the way for increased government scrutiny and possibly even regulation.
    The cruise industry says it's working hard to improve its performance. In some cases, I know this to be true. I have lectured and led snorkeling programs on lines whose executives and crews demonstrated a commitment to ecology. The GAO report agrees that pro-gress has been made. Overall, dumping prosecutions have fallen from a high of nearly 500 cases
  • in 1995 to 104 last year.
So what is the real problem? I think it is growth. Currently, 9.5 million people take cruises each year. But the industry is projected to grow by 9 percent by 2003. In some places, like California, it will grow by as much as 70 percent. With Coast Guard inspectors already overextended, officials are concerned that, if practices aren't cleaned up in a hurry, the local and regional effects could be catastrophic.
I think it is time for government and the cruise industry to sit down and work out a compromise. The industry says it should be allowed to regulate itself. But in practice, self-regulation is a joke. So the industry should expect to be monitored more closely.
Governments want compliance with laws. But the laws are riddled with loopholes, even in the most conscientious countries. The scope of legal dumping must be drastically restricted and only government can do that.