Cruise ships raise economic tides, but tread some rocky waters environmentally

Cruise ships deliver big financial benefits to B.C., but critics wish they would jettison their environmentally unfriendly ways.

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Each cruise ship visit to Vancouver yields an average of $3 million in local economic activity

Critics wish the vessels would jettison their eco-unfriendly ways

They glide in and out of Coal Harbour like massive wedding cakes or, in the worst-case scenario for passengers, 15-storey petri dishes. Starting in April, typically, cruise ships are a daily presence in Vancouver for much of the year.

The Port of Vancouver says the city welcomed more than a million cruise passengers in 2019. All told, there were 288 cruise ship arrivals, bringing 22 percent more passengers than the previous year. On average, each new arrival stimulates about $3 million in direct local economic activity, says the Port. Although the number of ships squeezing under the Lions Gate Bridge will fall slightly in 2020, passenger visits are projected to swell by roughly 10 percent, to 1.1 million, thanks to larger vessels.

Cruise ships bring tourists, and money, to town. They bring other stuff, too—emissions, sludge, grey water and underwater noise that affects local orca populations. Are cruise ships worth the price we pay?

One major environmental issue dogging the oil-powered cruise industry is how it deals with exhaust. A new international protocol called IMO 2020 calls for cruise ships to keep sulphur emissions no higher than 0.5 percent, but Vancouver regulations already require a more stringent 0.1 percent.

To shrink emissions, most cruise ships use scrubber systems that remove sulphur and particulate matter from exhaust. The scrubbers produce wastewater and a sort of sulphur sludge, which is among the waste products handled locally by Tymac Launch Service.

“In general, scrubbers are a stopgap measure,” says Edward Downing, director of communications at the Vancouver-based Clear Seas Centre for Responsible Marine Shipping. “LNG [liquefied natural gas] is definitely a lower-carbon fuel option, lower in CO2 emissions.”

Andrew Dumbrille, senior specialist for sustainable shipping at World Wildlife Fund Canada in Ottawa, isn’t a fan of scrubbers. “A typical seven-day cruise voyage produces five tonnes of scrubber sludge and about 75,000 [cubic metres] of open-loop scrubber wash water,  he says.

Open-loop scrubbers dump contaminated wastewater into the sea. Closed-loop scrubbers use chemically treated water to extract and neutralize pollutants, collecting residue on-board and reusing the water. Most ocean-going ships have open-loop systems, according to Clear Seas.

There’s also grey water, the non-sewage wastewater from sinks, laundry, showers, cleaning and so on. It can contain oils, micro-plastics and other contaminants. Ships aren’t allowed to dump grey water within three nautical miles of shore. “It’s uncertain where grey water dumping occurs,” Dumbrille says, “and its treatment inside three nautical miles should be done through the most advanced wastewater treatment systems available.”

But only some ships, particularly newer ones, have sophisticated systems for grey water. Also, there are still no controls on black carbon and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, Dumbrille says.

In a recent report, the European Federation for Transport & Environment points out that Carnival Cruise Lines ships alone emit 10 times more sulphur than all of the cars in Europe. The authors recommend using shore power, which lets ships in port plug into the electrical grid and shut down their engines. Vancouver has employed shore power since 2009. The Greater Victoria Harbour Authority, which also hopes to install such a system, has commissioned an engineering assessment.

Unfortunately, not all ships are equipped to plug in. But the Port of Vancouver says there have been at least 500 shore power connections since 2009, including half of all cruise ships in 2019. For the cruise industry, the result has been 6,574 tonnes of fuel savings, some 20,000 tonnes fewer GHG emissions and a 583-tonne reduction in air pollutants. Yet those numbers also highlight the volume of pollution that cruise ships produce.

Then there are fuel leaks or illegal dumps. Before reaching port, cruise ships and other vessels are subjected to regular log checks at security points. Of course, captains are unlikely to make log entries like, “January 12, 2020—quietly dumped a bunch of oil and diesel. No one must know!” So through its National Aerial Surveillance Program, Transport Canada has a Dash-8 plane keeping an eye on cruise ships along the coast, looking for telltale slicks that would indicate illegal discharges.

Ships and whales are never a good mix, so in 2014 the Port of Vancouver launched its ECHO (Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation) program. More than a sterling example of acronym formation, ECHO aims to protect local populations, especially southern resident killer whales (SRKW). Dumbrille says a 20-percent reduction in ship speed would reduce underwater noise levels by 66 percent and whale collisions by 78 percent.

The industry is on-board with ECHO, says Donna Spalding, government affairs and community relations representative with the North West and Canada division of the U.S.-based Cruise Lines International Association. Ships in a 30-mile zone that includes Boundary Pass and Haro Strait, off Vancouver Island, have dropped speeds to 14.5 knots from a typical 16 to 20. “This agreement is the first of its kind in the marine environment and includes many objectives to mitigate the impacts on the SRKW,” Spalding says.

The cruise ship industry is thriving and unlikely to shrink—but can its environmental impact be minimized? Yes, WWF‘s Dumbrille says, but getting there will require stricter regulation. “Consumers can also play an important role by demanding action from the cruise sector to dramatically reduce its pollution and carbon emissions.”

Fuel Intentions

Calling emissions scrubbers on cruise ships a retrograde measure, the World Wildlife Fund and other groups say the industry should move from oil to alternative fuels. There are two options:


Liquefied natural gas is touted as the future for cruise ship fuel. But no LNG ships run Vancouver routes, and there are few in service anywhere else. However, most operators have them on order, following the lead of Carnival Cruise Lines, which operates a handful of the vessels in Europe.


This past September, Vancouver hosted the Norwegian-built MS Roald Amundsen, one of the world’s first two hybrid electric cruise ships. But like electric cars, these vessels will probably require more recharging infrastructure to gain a secure foothold in the market.

Sources: Clear Seas Centre for Responsible Marine Shipping, Port of Vancouver