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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Cruise Control

Air Date: Week of

Monterey Bay, the nation 's largest marine sanctuary, is home to more than two dozen endangered or threatened species. But some who live along its coastline are now concerned about the environmental impact that cruise ships could have on that fragile ecosystem. From Santa Cruz, California, Sandy Hausman reports.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. This year, about eight million people will board a cruise ship. Sailing from port to port, they may not consider the environmental impact of their adventure, but pollution in the form of wastewater, garbage, and oil from the growing fleet of floating resorts worries some critics.

Sandy Hausman reports from Monterey Bay.


HAUSMAN: Monterey Bay is the nation’s largest marine sanctuary, a protected area that runs from just north of San Francisco, south to Cambria, extending an average of 35 miles from shore.
It’s home to 26 endangered or threatened species, including leatherback and green sea turtles, California sea otters, harbor and elephant seals, and migrating whales.

The people who live along this 400-mile stretch of coastline treasure it, and many are now concerned about the impact that cruise ships could have here. Thirteen are expected to dock at Monterey this year, and San Francisco is building a new terminal that could eventually welcome many more.

LONG: Frankly, these are large, floating cities and they have all the same kinds of effluents and pollutant streams that a city does, but without the same kind of monitoring and enforcing that cities have.

That’s Russell Long, executive director of the Blue Water Network, an environmental group based in the Bay Area. He says a typical cruise ship with 3,000 passengers and crew on board can generate 30,000 gallons of sewage a day and is free to discharge it without treatment unless it’s within three miles of U.S. Shores. The same ship can produce 225,000 gallons of wastewater a day from dishwashers, showers, sinks, and washing machines. Known as greywater, it can be discharged almost anywhere.

That worries Vicki Nichols of Save Our Shores, a group formed to protect Monterey Bay. Cruise ships are exempt from federal standards that apply to land-based pollution, but if their treated sewage and greywater had to meet those requirements, Nichols says they might fail.

NICHOLS: The Alaskan Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Coast Guard went out and sampled 22 ships, and found out that if you sampled your blackwater, which was your sewage, and your greywater, that none of the vessels complied with the federal standards for fecal coliform. They all exceeded the fecal coliform levels from 10,000 to 100,000 times.

HAUSMAN: That was in the year 2000. Alaska now bans discharge of any wastewater within one mile of its shores, and has set limits on levels of fecal coliform, bacteria that serve as an indicator for the presence of other harmful organisms.

While there is no hard evidence that cruise ship discharge has a negative impact on the health of marine plants and animals, scientists believe ongoing pollution could be harmful. That’s why residents of Monterey Bay formed a commission and asked all cruise ships visiting to retain their wastewater until they leave the sanctuary.

Over a five-year period in the mid-90s, cruise lines were involved in 104 confirmed cases of illegal dumping in U.S. waters. Since then, the industry claims to have reformed. Michael Crye is president of the International Council of Cruise Lines, a group representing the 16 largest lines and more than 80 percent of the industry.

CRYE: I think it’s very important to us to be as responsible as we can and, in addition, to leave as small an environmental footprint as we can, wherever we operate. We’re invested in the future of the beautiful places on this earth. That’s what people want to go on cruises to see.

HAUSMAN: Crye says cruise lines use state-of-the-art equipment to incinerate garbage. They recycle glass, aluminum and cardboard, and have improved engine room equipment to reduce oil discharge. These functions are monitored by environmental officers on board, and they are subject to Coast Guard inspection at any time.

Crye adds that the industry has invested heavily in a new wastewater treatment technology that cleans sewage to drinking water standards. It will be on 12 of the 100 ships his group represents this summer.

CRYE: In some locations, you would be discharging water that is cleaner than the ambient water that you would be discharging into in some ports. You would actually be improving the water quality.

HAUSMAN: If the water is so clean, Vicki Nichols wonders why ships don’t reuse it rather than spilling it overboard. She and other community leaders recently voted to ask the federal government for a ban on all cruise ship discharge in the Monterey Bay sanctuary. Russell Long with the Blue Water Network says that policy should be applied everywhere.

LONG: Backpackers have known for a long time that the right way to go into the wilderness is, if you’re going to hike it in, you hike it out. Cruise ships need to learn the same lesson.
Michael Crye finds that an impractical suggestion, noting few ports are equipped to transfer wastewater to municipal treatment plants.


HAUSMAN: Eight million Americans take a cruise each year, and 12 million are expected to do so in 2010. Faced with the prospect of so much growth, environmental groups are increasing efforts to strengthen national and international laws against dumping at sea.

Oceana, a not-for-profit group committed to protecting and restoring the world’s oceans, recently commissioned a poll of cruise line passengers. By a margin of three to one, they object to dumping of human waste, and 6 of 10 say they would pay more for their trip if it would help keep the oceans clean. In Santa Cruz on the Monterey Bay, Vicki Nichols applauds that news.

NICHOLS: I think as a nation we really ought to address this on a federal level, both nationally and internationally, because these vessels go in and out of ports all around the world. And it’s one thing to say let’s protect our backyard, our marine sanctuary. But I think we all really need to say let’s protect our oceans, and set up the right legislation to do so.

Two years ago, the Blue Water Network led 53 environmental groups in asking the EPA to look at this issue. The agency agreed and is now assessing the waste streams of ships and their potential impact on water quality. Officials say they will use that information to decide whether new regulations or voluntary programs are needed.

Environmentalists also report progress at the local level. In addition to regulations on the books in Alaska, Hawaii and Florida have letters of agreement with the industry, limiting cruise ship discharge. And a state commission will suggest regulations for cruise lines in California’s waters this summer.

For Living on Earth, I’m Sandy Hausman in Santa Cruz, California.



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