Cruise Ships and Marine Pollution

As we approach COP27 what about our Oceans?
What about cruise ships and those “holidays of a lifetime”?
Ways Cruise Ships Can Cause Marine Pollution.

Though representing a small fraction of the shipping industry, cruise liners, as much as the entertainment they provide, are also a source of significant pollution in the oceanic and marine areas like commercial vessels. A luxury cruise ship releases ten times more carbon emissions than all of Europe’s cars. We watch these lit up ships in the Clyde, once or twice a week in summer.

A 3000-capacity cruise ship generates 150,000 gallons of sewage and greywater, enough to fill 10 swimming pools. Many other hazardous wastes such as oily bilge water and bio-waste containing viruses are generated on a cruise trip. In 2019, Carnival Cruise Lines was fined 60 million US dollars for obstructing justice and illegally dumping vast quantities of oil, plastics and garbage into the sea.

In 2018, the cruise industry offered service to more than 26 million customers. Environmental groups state that the passenger’s carbon footprint triples when one opts for a cruise journey as these ‘floating cities’ produce around 15 gallons of hazardous chemical waste every single day. Closer to home four million cruise passengers are expected to visit Norway during 2022 on more cruise ships than ever before. The figures from Cruise Norway show that 500 more port calls are registered this year than in 2019, the last full year with no pandemic-related travel restrictions. Norway’s second biggest city Bergen is known as the “gateway to the fjords” and is set to receive 290 cruise ships this year. The Anthem of the Seas was a recent visitor to Bergen. The world’s 19th largest cruise ship with 4,900 passengers. They literally play follow my leader around the stop off points each evening, right up to the Arctic Circle and The Lofoten Islands.

Ballast Water Pollution. Cruise ships, like other big vessels, use a huge amount of ballast water to stabilise the boat while travelling. As these vessels travel longer, the ballast water is often filled from one region and discharged in another whenever required. The amount of ballast water released typically is around 1,000 metric tons. This discharge of the ballast water from the cruise ships is a significant cause of cruise pollution.

Since the ballast water contains microbes and micro-organisms in addition to vegetation and other sea animals, the pollution is mainly caused by the local species and marine life. One example of such ecological damage would be the massive swell of jellyfish in the Black Sea.

Air Pollution. As we are all aware, poor air quality is one of the major global health hazards as, according to the World Health Organisation, 4.2 million people die due to air pollution. Just as vehicle exhaust tanks emit waste fumes and toxic air, cruise ships’ engines also emit such unwanted air.

The scope of the gases emitted from the vehicular emissions on the road and the cruise ship emissions on the sea differs hugely, leading to the pollution of immense proportions in the marine areas. Similarly, recent research also found that the air on the aft areas of cruise ships, particulate matter pollution in detail, is as polluted as the air in significant cities, such as Beijing.

Noise pollution. The noise the passing ships produce badly affects the environment as it disturbs the marine ecosystem. Unlike other ships, Cruise ships contribute heavily to marine noise pollution as the windows of noise pollution are high in cruise ships.
In addition to the noise pollution from the ship’s machinery, cruise ships produce more noise thanks to the entertainment activities on board. These noises disturb the marine animals and mammals, including killer whales and dolphins, whose sensitive hearing gets harmed and debilitated, often leading to their unwanted death and an overall loss to the ecosystem.

Grey Water Pollution. Unlike other vessels, cruise ships dump more wastewater offshore (after passing through a treatment plant), mainly grey water from sinks, laundries, showers and galleys abroad the vessel. So, even the most regular activity onboard the cruise ship, such as cleaning utensils and doing the laundry, causes cruise ship pollution.

Classified under the head of the greywater, this water accumulation contains not just harmful chemicals but sometimes even metals and minerals. The potency of greywater harming the marine environment is greater because of its high concentration in oceanic waters. Studies show that a large cruise ship releases around one million gallons of grey water during a single week’s voyage.

Blackwater/ Sewage Pollution. What happens when someone flushes the loo on a cruise ship? The answer is straightforward. The ship dumps human waste into our oceans (after passing through sewage treatment plants). And, we have larger cruise ships that can accommodate up to 6680 passengers and 2200 crew members. So, the next colossal cruise pollution cause is sewage. Classified as Blackwater, cruise ships deposit around 210,000 gallons of human sewage into the ocean during a week’s voyage. Sewage includes waste from the toilets and the health facilities on the cruise ship. Such wastewater is rich in bacteria and algae, adversely affecting the oceanic life-forms and the entire marine ecosystem.

Chemical Pollution. The entry of chemicals from the cruise ships to the oceans through the grey water or the black water channels is another threat the cruise ships make to the marine ecosystem. Cruise ships emit toxic chemicals from batteries, dry cleaning and industrial products, chemicals for daily operations, and several other substances past their expiry, polluting the waters the ships travel. Environmentalists argue that these chemicals pose a huge threat to the lives of marine creatures and life forms.

Oil Pollution/ Bilge Oil Pollution. Oil pollution from the shipping industry is the main reason for the increased marine pollution. Cruise ships, huge compared to other vessels, end up burning more heavy fuel oil, one of the dirtiest fossil fuels on the market. This oil contains dangerous levels of sulphur and heavy metals etc.

It is estimated that cruise ships use, on average, 150 tons of heavy fuel oil every day. With the bilge oil mixing with oceanic water, the use of this oil causes marine pollution. Faulty engine systems and improper repair work are two areas where oil could leak and mix with the oceanic water. Collisions and accidents also act as a reason for such oil pollution.

Solid Waste Pollution. It is estimated that cruise ships contribute 24% to the total solid waste generated by maritime traffic across the world as one of such luxury vessels can produce seven tons of garbage and solid waste in a single day. A cruise ship’s solid waste materials include paper, cardboard, aluminium, etc. Such materials form unwanted debris on our oceans’ surface, posing large-scale threats to marine plants and creatures.

Destruction of Coral Reefs. Cruise ships are a severe threat to coral reefs and their related organisms. As tourist vessels, the entry and anchoring of cruise ships on disturbed and undisturbed areas of coral reefs across the world have resulted in several incidents that involve the destruction of these natural wonders.

These accidents also affect these coral reefs’ rich ecological integrity and biodiversity. In 2017, the British cruise ship MS Caledonian crashed onto the pristine coral reefs of Indonesia, destroying 17,222 square feet of coral reefs and causing more than $19 million in irreparable damage.

Physical damages to marine life. In addition to the air and water pollution these cruise ships cause, whales and dolphins are also victims of the increasing traffic of these ships. These massive ships are responsible for injuring, often killing, marine lives, particularly fin whales, killer whales and humpback whales.

Considering the risks and the damages caused to the marine environment, countries have laid proper resolutions to protect the oceanic surroundings. Slowly and steadily, even cruise shipping conglomerates have begun to understand the importance and necessity of preserving the marine ecosystem. For the time being, a better cruise shipping experience with the necessary caution and care for the aquatic life remains a dream to be realized and attained. Hopefully, it will be in the days and years to come.

To give you an idea of the influence of cruise ships in Western Canada, a trip to Alaska offers wonderful views of glaciers, untamed national parks and small coastal villages. Lasting 2-3 days each cruise is leaving behind a trail of toxic waste, including in Marine Protected Areas. ”There is a perverse incentive to treat Canada like a toilet bowl”, says Anna Barford, Canada’s shipping campaigner at “They are just using us as a highway and tossing stuff left, right and centre.” Across Canada’s three coastlines vessels generate 147bn litres of harmful waste each year, equivalent to 59,000 Olympic -sized swimming pools according to WWF Canada. Based on data of more than 5,000 vessels, the report found cruise ships were the largest polluters, despite making up only 2% of the ship traffic analysed.

Globally, cruise ships have a patchy record of maintaining environmental regulations but the Pacific waters off the coast of British Columbia are particularly polluted. However, Canada’s federal dumping regulations are less stringent than US counterparts, especially when compared to Washington and Alaska Regulations, which encourage the ships to hold on to their waste in American waters and dump when in Canadian waters. Recently Transport Canada has tightened restrictions to limit discharges of grey water and sewage. The main criticism is that these regulations are voluntary and do not apply to scrubbers. Waste threatens sea otter populations and endangered populations of killer whales. Fishers in south-east Alaska also complain of dumped waste, fearing critical fish species are being exposed to harmful substances. Transport Canada says it is working to develop approaches to reduce scrubber discharge but protestors say that until Canada implements mandatory regulations it will not tackle the problems.

Nearer to home, the Orkney Islands are the UK’s most popular cruise ship destination with over 170 cruise ships calling into Kirkwall and Stromness annually.

There needs more stringent regulation on cruise ship that apply in all marine waters around the world, with heavy penalties for non-compliance. More than 50 cruise ships are approved to sail in Antarctica for the 2022–2023 season, according to the vessel directory of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators. The Arctic and Antarctic seas are now at risk due to marine pollution, much from the cruise industry.

Sally Campbell
November 2022