FFrom the comfort of cruise ships, a typical trip to Alaska offers magnificent views of glaciers and wilderness national parks, and visits to quaint beach towns. For years, these sweepstakes have made Alaskan cruises the most booked American vacation.
But the journey to these pristine areas, which involves cruising along Canada’s west coast for two or three days, leaves a trail of toxic waste behind, including in marine protected areas (MPAs), new research shows. .
It’s estimated that more than 31 billion liters (8.5 billion U.S. gallons) of pollution a year are dumped off the west coast of Canada by cruise ships en route to and from Alaska, according to a report by the environmental organizations Stand.earth and West Coast Environmental Law (WCEL).
“There’s this perverse incentive to treat Canada like a toilet bowl,” says Anna Barford, Canadian maritime campaign manager at Stand.earth. “They’re using us like a highway and throwing stuff left, right and center.”
According to a March 2022 report by WWF-Canada, of Canada’s 151,019 miles (243,042 km) of coastline, ships generate 147 billion liters of harmful waste each year, which is equivalent to 59,000 Olympic swimming pools. Based on data from more than 5,000 ships, the report found that cruise ships were the biggest polluters, despite accounting for just 2% of maritime traffic analyzed.
Pollution from cruise ships includes large volumes of toxic sewage from toilets, gray water from sinks, showers and laundry rooms, and bilge water – the oily liquid that collects in the deepest part bass of a ship. By far the largest source of pollution identified in the WWF report came from so-called scrubbers – devices installed to remove exhaust gases such as sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxide, as well as particles, heavy fuel oil used as marine fuel. Scrubbers create acidic wastewater containing a cocktail of chemicals.
On a week-long trip to Alaska and back along the Canadian coast, a cruise ship will generate nearly 200 million liters of waste from scrubbers, according to the Stand.earth and WCEL report. While ships may choose to discharge at sea or in port, most waste from scrubbers is discharged as it is generated.
Globally, cruise ships have a spotty record of complying with environmental regulations, including in Alaska, but the Pacific waters off British Columbia are particularly polluted. This is due to the many cruise ships, but also because Canada’s federal dumping regulations are less stringent than US laws, according to Michael Bissonnette, a WCEL attorney, particularly when compared to Washington and US regulations. Alaska – the two US states located at either end of Canada’s west coast.
In Washington, more than 6,000 km2 (2,300 sq mi) of ocean habitat is protected in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound, near the Canadian border, and is now classified as a no-discard zone. Alaska requires cruise ships to apply for and receive approval to discharge sewage and gray water.
These regulations encourage ships “to retain their waste while in US waters and then dump it while in Canadian waters,” Bissonnette says.
In Canadian waters, untreated sewage from cruise ships can legally be discharged outside a 12 nautical mile limit under ship pollution regulations, which can often overlap in critical habitats. Meanwhile, treated sewage – which includes waste from toilets and gray water from sinks and laundries – can be discharged three nautical miles from shore.
Sigrid Kuehnemund, vice-president of wildlife and industry at WWF-Canada, says that while each federal MPA has its own regulations, in Canada very few ban discharges of operational waste – any waste that accumulates on board when the ships are in motion. “The regulations that currently protect MPAs kind of give the shipping industry a free pass, and there are no clear regulations that would restrict discharge within those boundaries.”
Efforts are underway to tighten pollution rules. In April, on the eve of the new cruise season, the federal department Transport Canada announced new measures to limit gray water and sewage discharges from cruise ships operating in Canadian waters.
However, while welcome, the move is not enough, Bissonnette says, noting that the measures are voluntary and do not apply to scrubbers.
When released into the ocean, the wide range of toxic substances pose a significant threat to aquatic wildlife, as well as the habitat and food webs on which they depend, including endangered populations of sea otters and sea otters. killer whales that live off the coast of British Columbia.
About 10% of scrubber washwater discharged from ships off British Columbia occurred in critical killer whale habitat, according to an analysis by the International Council on Clean Shipping. Particularly alarmed, says Kuehnemund, is the threat to wildlife in the Scott Islands Marine National Park, a group of five islands off the northwest tip of Vancouver Island. According to the WWF report, this protected area is the most polluted by cruise ship spillage.
Located on a route heavily used by cruise ships, the park is home to some of the largest colonies of Steller sea lions in the world. Each spring, more than a million seabirds – including 90% of Canada’s tufted puffins and half of the world’s Cassin’s auklets – breed on the island’s cliffs. Kuehnemund describes the area as “a biodiversity hotspot”.
Some coastal communities fear that as cruise ship traffic increases, the threat to their waters will also increase. Popular port destinations including Victoria and Seattle have seen protests over the return of cruise ships after pandemic restrictions were lifted.
Fishing communities in Southeast Alaska are also complaining about waste being dumped in their border waters with Canada, fearing critical fish species could be exposed to harmful substances.
One fisherman, Mark Severson, recalls cruising in the summer of 2019 through miles of frothy yellow waters in Petersburg, a small island community about 30 miles from the Canadian border and a popular port along the cruise route from Alaska. Since then, Severson and his wife, Karen, have been advocating for stricter oversight of the dumping of waste on cruise ships.
“Passengers who love cruising Alaska don’t even realize the ships are polluting our pristine parts of the world,” he says.
With the new pollution measures in place, a Transport Canada spokesperson said: “Canada is among the countries with the strictest requirements in the world for these types of releases. The department said it is aware of concerns about waste from scrubbers in Canadian waters and is working to develop approaches that can reduce discharges.
But Barford argues that only when Canada implements mandatory regulations will the problem of cruise ship pollution be solved. “It’s a terrible way to say goodbye to a community you’ve just visited,” she says. “Waving from behind as the ship empties its tank. It’s not something I want to leave behind.