As the Covid-19 pandemic spread around the world last winter, cruise ships served as petri dishes for the new virus. Despite being hailed as a “great and important industry” by President Trump, cruise lines’ role in the pandemic has led to new calls to address their other detrimental impacts – including their toll on the environment.
Representative Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) is sponsoring a bill, dubbed the Cruise Integrity Act, to reform cruise ship operations. It calls for restrictions on the dumping of trash, untreated waste, and oily bilge water into the oceans. It would also require cruise lines to submit plans to drastically reduce emissions of carbon, methane, and nitrogen oxides and reduce the use of heavy fuels.
“Most cruise lines are little more than foreign polluters that fail to protect their workers and passengers,” Speier said in announcing the bill. Cosponsor Representative Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) concurred: “Cruise lines have indiscriminately polluted the seas, ignored passenger health and safety, and avoided federal taxes that support the agencies that are fighting this [Covid-19] outbreak,” she said in a statement.
As Covid-19 spread worldwide last winter, cruises continued to ply the oceans. “People on a large ship, all together – you couldn’t ask for a better incubator for infection,” warned top US infectious diseases official Anthony Fauci. In early February, the Diamond Princess had more than 700 coronavirus infections – more than any country at the time except China. Yet voyages continued departing into March while cruise lines portrayed the catastrophe on the Diamond Princess as an isolated incident.
“We all watched in horror as conditions slowly deteriorated for those trapped on cruise ships,” Speier said, noting that one of her constituents died after a voyage on the Coral Princess, another ship stricken by the coronavirus. “Passengers were caught in a nightmare, sick and struggling to get medical care or find a way home. The heartbreaking truth is that much of this suffering was likely avoidable. Had cruise companies acted swiftly and cautiously and prioritised human life over profits, lives might have been saved.”
Cruise Lines International Association – which represents most of the world’s major lines including Carnival and Royal Caribbean – called for a halt to cruises in mid-March shortly after the World Health Organisation termed the global coronavirus outbreak a “pandemic.” Its members then voluntarily suspended operations.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a no-sail order for cruise ships in place through July 24, but major cruise lines have canceled departures through the summer. Even if cruises rev up again, some destinations are not ready to welcome them. The Cayman Islands have a ban in place until at least September 1, the Washington Post reported this month. And the Seychelles, an island nation east of Africa in the Indian Ocean, has banned cruise landings through the end of 2021.
“Sometimes you have to make decisions like this,” said travel-industry analyst Henry Harteveldt of the Atmosphere Research Group, “not because it’s popular, but because it is ultimately the safest decision and in the interest of the health of the country, especially if you’re an island nation.”
With ships idle during the pandemic, Harteveldt continued, “there’s no more compelling time for the cruise industry to examine every aspect of its business.” Due to its history of environmental negligence, he said, the cruise industry has become a “pariah.” Some lines have taken steps, such as installing smokestack scrubbers, to do better.
Carnival Corp. spokesperson Roger Frizzell said the company, which includes Princess Cruises and Holland America Line, has, “reduced our carbon footprint rate by 25 percent and established a goal to reduce [it by] 40 percent by 2030.” Carnival, he added, has, “launched two ships operated by liquefied natural gas and installed enhanced air quality systems across our fleet.”
In an email interview, Frizzell said that Carnival is expanding the use of “next-generation” wastewater treatment and that they have the “latest green technology installed on more than 40 percent of our fleet,” with all new ships being constructed with such systems.
Speier isn’t buying it. “It’s hard to overstate the environmental harm of cruise ships,” she told Sierra in early June, calling them “all-around bad actors.”
“We can’t focus on just one form of pollution,” Speier added. “We must immediately reduce cruise emissions and dumping in order to preserve our oceans and environment.”
Small-ship cruises run by companies such as Lindblad and UnCruise, whose boats typically carry fewer than 100 passengers, say they already have an environmental approach. “Sustainability has been part of our core values” since the company was founded in 1996, said UnCruise spokeswoman Liz Galloway. “Our size alone allows us to have a smaller footprint on the places we visit. Not only do we shorten the supply chain of our food onboard by buying local, we reduce waste, contribute to recycling, and are efficient in the use of marine sanitation devices.”
A Lindblad spokeswoman said the company is, “not ready to discuss resumption of our expeditions yet, and the comprehensive protocol plan we will be implementing.” UnCruise hopes to resume sailing this August in Alaska, Galloway said. The company is working with officials to implement protocols such as ensuring all passengers have a recent negative test for Covid-19. Though the ships are small, there’s sufficient room for social distancing, Galloway said, and with only a few dozen passengers on board, the odds of an outbreak are far less than on a large ship carrying thousands of guests and thousands more crew members.
Visiting Alaska this season is, “a rare opportunity to experience the last frontier in a way it hasn’t been in decades,” she said, due to the lack of big ships cruising this summer. Some of UnCruise’s Alaska itineraries include a stop at Glacier Bay National Park, where there’s a 45-foot-long humpback whale skeleton. The whale, named Snow for the white markings on her flukes, was seen in and around Glacier Bay for more than 25 years until 2001, when, according to the National Park Service, she was struck and killed by a large cruise ship leaving Glacier Bay.
Critics of the cruise industry often claim that cruise ships avoid regulation, oversight, and taxes by the flag state they select, “but this is fundamentally untrue,” said Cruise Lines International Association spokesperson Laziza Lambert. “The cruise industry is subject to robust regulation, oversight, inspection, and enforcement by local and national governments around the world.” She said that CLIA cruise line members have been dedicating their time during the suspension of operations to determine ways to go further to protect the health of passengers, crew, and the public.
Speier doesn’t believe large-scale cruising should resume soon, even with new safeguards: “I wholeheartedly agree with CDC epidemiologist Cindy Friedman, who said, ‘Nobody should be going on cruise ships during this pandemic, full stop.’”
Michael Shapiro writes about travel, culture and environmental issues for national magazines and metro newspapers.