Hey, it's a whale-meat shish kabob

What one vessel caught in Alaska this summer, and other tales of how eco-unfriendly cruise ships are.
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Cruise ships at the dock at the Port of Seattle. (Fred Felleman)

What one vessel caught in Alaska this summer, and other tales of how eco-unfriendly cruise ships are.

Eco-tourism, right? A clean industry. Come cruise to Alaska and Puget Sound, blow kisses at whales, enjoy the giant IMAX ride that's a sea voyage (between trips to the buffet and casino). Seattle, green city extraordinaire, loves its cruise ship tourists, downtown depends on them, but is the industry really clean and green? Are those tourists jamming our walkable streets good for the environment that attracts them?

Well, not so much. We've known for a long while that cruise ships can spew tens of thousands of gallons of sewage and chemicals into our Northwest waters, and have. But now we can quantify the environmental impact not of accidents but of business as usual. An Environmental Protection Agency "Cruise Ship Discharge Assessment Report" (pdf) estimates that big cruise ships generate about 21,000 gallons of sewage (black water) a day and about 170,000 gallons of gray water. There are many sources of wastewater from ships in addition to toilets, including emptied pools, showers, bilge and deck runoff. Raw sewage can be dumped just a few miles off shore. Some propose banning the release of cruise-ship generated toxic waste anywhere within the 200-mile limit.

Slate has an interesting piece about how bad taking a cruise is environmentally. A big problem: your carbon footprint, which more than doubles on a cruise (not counting your flights and shore activities). Here's one breakdown:

So let's say you've decided to take Carnival's weeklong Western Caribbean cruise, which leaves from Miami and stops at Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands; Isla Roatan, Honduras; Belize; and Cozumel, Mexico, before returning to Florida — a total of 1,826.5 miles. Your personal emissions for the voyage — not counting any time spent on land — would thus come to 2,137 pounds of CO2, or just about a ton. In 2006, fossil fuel-related CO2 emissions in the United States were 21.8 tons per capita — or about 119.5 pounds per person per day. So a seven-day cruise produces about 18 days' worth of carbon dioxide.

Flying to a destination and simply staying put is often much better for the environment, sewage aside.

Now Friends of the Earth is out with a cruise line report card (pdf), rating big cruise companies on environmental sensitivity, including those that go to Alaska. The report looks at sewage treatment, air-pollution reduction, compliance with water quality rules (in Alaskan waters), and the ease with which consumers can get cruise line eco-information. The top cruise ship lines (the best of which got a Greg Nickels "B" for performance) are Holland American, Norwegian, and Princess. The worst: Royal Caribbean and Disney. The latter apparently just loves spreading crap on the Little Mermaid's territorial waters.

There are ways cruise ships can minimize the harm: plug in to outside electricity sources when docked so as not to have to keep polluting engines running all night for power, and installing advanced wastewater treatment systems.

One problem no one has been able to solve: How to ensure that your ship doesn't turn into a rogue whaler. This summer, a Princess Cruises vessel arrived in Vancouver, BC with a stowaway: A "protected" fin whale was impaled on the bow. The whale was dead and had been run into somewhere between Ketchikan, Alaska and Vancouver. Yes, even a cruise ship can produce road kill.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.