No Smooth Sailing in Taking on the Cruise Industry

Those of us involved in the environmental movement are hardly short of projects to criticize. We rightfully lambaste dams, power lines, mining operations and drilling operations when these activities have the potential to damage ecologically sensitive areas. But sometimes we become so caught up in defending land that we forget about the vast, life-sustaining oceans covering three quarters of our planet.

Environmentalists don't spend enough time on cruise ships, and frankly, some of us prefer not to. After all, who doesn't enjoy a good cruise? Nobody can be begrudged for enjoying all those midnight buffets, awesome comedians and bands, pool games, or towels folded to look like animals (my favorite!).

Unfortunately, our oceans aren't having as much fun with this rapidly growing industry. Discharges and air emissions from cruise lines cause extreme damage to countless marine mammals, birds, coastal areas, and already-endangered coral reefs. Millions of gallons of "gray water" from showers, kitchens, and laundry are dumped directly into the ocean, as are innumerable forms of hazardous waste. The raw sewage, bilge water and extensive garbage generated by these ships do not help their "green" credentials either.

It gets worse. According to the Daily Telegraph, cruise ships expel three times as much carbon dioxide as airplanes (!). In Hong Kong, they've been identified as the single greatest contributor to air pollution. U.S. cities like Savannah are rejecting plans for new cruise ship docks doe to concerns over pollution. Cruise ships may not be the only threat to our oceans and coastal communities, but they're low-hanging fruit. Defending the planet must take priority over upscale entertainment.

To begin reforming this industry, look no further than Alaska. Thanks to a flawed permit process, the state's Department of Environmental Conservation has been allowing cruise ships to pump endless waste through its waterways. A recent court order is now challenging the government agency to answer a simple question: why not require ships to utilize the best available pollution treatment? It isn't the first time the Alaska DEC has been asked to review its lax discharge permit, so now they are being compelled to take the issue seriously by one of Alaska's Superior Courts.

Alaska isn't Vegas... what happens in that state doesn't need to stay there. There's a lot to learn from this "best practices" model, and we need to promote it far and wide. Yes, permits should mandate that cruise lines use the most effective and accessible technologies for dealing with pollution, and there's no good reason for them to do otherwise. Limits should be set on contaminants (water and air) and regular reporting should be required like every other industry that operates in the US. Period.

Reforming the cruise industry won't be smooth sailing, but it's an excellent first step toward preserving our marine ecosystems. Cruises are awesome, but so is an ocean brimming with life. Bon voyage.