Charting a Sustainable Course: Cruise Ships and Biodiversity

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The cruise ship industry, celebrated for its luxurious voyages and extensive amenities, has witnessed exponential growth over the past decades. However, this growth comes with a substantial environmental footprint, casting a long shadow over marine ecosystems and coastal communities. This article delves into the complex relationship between the cruise industry and marine ecosystems, exploring both the adverse effects and the innovative solutions being implemented to mitigate these impacts. We also highlight the critical roles of passengers and communities in fostering a more sustainable future for the cruise industry.

Understanding the Impact

The environmental impact of cruise ships on marine ecosystems is multifaceted and profound. This section delves into the various ways cruise ships contribute to biodiversity loss, highlighting the significant repercussions on marine life.

  • Pollution and Waste Disposal: Cruise ships are notorious for their waste generation and disposal practices. They produce a significant amount of solid waste, including plastics, glass, and food remnants, which often end up in the ocean. This waste not only pollutes the water but also poses serious threats to marine life. Animals like fish, sea turtles, and birds often ingest or get entangled in this debris, leading to injury or death. Additionally, cruise ships discharge blackwater (sewage) and graywater (from showers, kitchens, etc.) into the ocean, contributing to water pollution. This not only affects the water quality but also disrupts the marine food chain and habitats, particularly coral reefs, which are essential for marine biodiversity (North Texas, 2010).
  • Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gas Emissions: The cruise industry significantly contributes to air pollution through the emission of greenhouse gases. These vessels typically use heavy fuel oils, which release sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter into the atmosphere. This not only contributes to global warming but also affects air quality in coastal regions. The impact extends to marine life as well, as changes in air composition can lead to changes in ocean chemistry, affecting various marine species and their habitats (Garza, 2023).
  • Physical Damage to Marine Habitats: Cruise ships can cause direct physical damage to marine ecosystems. Anchoring and maneuvering near fragile environments, such as coral reefs and seagrass beds, can lead to physical destruction. This not only affects the structure of these habitats but also the myriad of species that depend on them for survival (Foundation, 2021).
  • Noise Pollution: The engines and operation of cruise ships generate significant underwater noise, which can be detrimental to marine wildlife, particularly marine mammals like whales and dolphins that rely on sound for communication and navigation. Noise pollution can disrupt their communication, lead to behavioural changes, and in some cases, physical harm (Ahmed, 2022).

Greenwashing campaigns by the cruise ship industry with the creation of so-called “green corridors” should not placate the public. More needs to be done. The ocean faces overlapping crises of rapidly escalating climate change and biodiversity collapse, and there are a lot of actions to take. Many large-scale solutions are at our fingertips.

Anna Barford

Current Sustainable Solutions

Addressing the environmental impact of cruise ships requires a multifaceted approach which can include adopting cleaner fuels like LNG, implementing advanced wastewater treatment systems, enhancing onboard waste management, and utilizing scrubbers and exhaust gas cleaning systems. These initiatives are integral to reducing the cruise industry’s ecological footprint and protecting marine biodiversity.

  • Adoption of Cleaner Fuels: The transition from heavy fuel oils to cleaner alternatives like liquefied natural gas (LNG) is a significant step toward reducing air pollution. LNG, compared to traditional fuels, produces lower levels of harmful emissions such as sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides. This shift can lead to a substantial reduction in the cruise industry’s carbon footprint. However, concerns regarding methane slip, a phenomenon where unburned methane is released into the atmosphere during LNG combustion, necessitate further technological advancements to ensure LNG’s role as a sustainable fuel option. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has set stringent sulphur limits, encouraging the shift to cleaner fuels. Additionally, the adoption of biofuels and other alternative renewable energy sources is being explored for long-term sustainability (NationalGrid, 2022).
  • Advanced Wastewater Treatment Systems: The implementation of advanced wastewater treatment technologies onboard is crucial in preventing pollution. These systems treat sewage and graywater to remove contaminants before they are released into the ocean, thereby protecting marine ecosystems. Advanced treatment methods include biological treatment processes, membrane filtration, and ultraviolet disinfection. The use of such technologies ensures that the water discharged meets or even exceeds the standards set by international regulations, significantly reducing the environmental impact of cruise ships (Thakkar, 2023).
  • Enhanced Waste Management Practices: Effective waste management onboard cruise ships involves reducing waste generation, promoting recycling and reuse, and ensuring proper disposal of waste. Cruise lines are adopting practices like banning single-use plastics, implementing comprehensive recycling programs, and managing food waste through composting and donation programs. Some cruise lines are also working towards achieving zero waste to landfill, indicating a significant commitment to sustainable waste management. The education and involvement of passengers and crew in these practices are also essential for effective waste management (Garay & Paloti, 2023).
  • Use of Scrubbers and Exhaust Gas Cleaning Systems: The installation of exhaust gas cleaning systems, also known as scrubbers, on cruise ships, is another solution to reduce air pollution. These systems remove sulphur oxides from the ship’s exhaust, thereby helping to meet the IMO’s regulations on sulphur emissions. There are different types of scrubbers, including open-loop, closed-loop, and hybrid systems, each with its environmental considerations. While scrubbers effectively reduce air pollution, concerns about the disposal of wastewater and its impact on marine environments have led to calls for more stringent regulations and the development of more environmentally friendly scrubber technologies (Alaska, 2024).

Sustainable Practices in the Cruise Industry – MSC Efforts

The cruise industry’s journey towards sustainability is not just theoretical. MSC Cruises has taken significant steps towards sustainability and the conservation of biodiversity. Their comprehensive approach includes adopting cleaner energy sources, like LNG, to reduce emissions, with their first LNG-powered ship launched in 2022. Additionally, they are committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. To improve operational efficiency and minimize environmental impact, MSC Cruises uses digital monitoring systems. This approach is in line with meeting the International Maritime Organization’s carbon intensity goals well before the 2030 deadline. These initiatives are part of MSC Cruises’ broader sustainability program, which is structured around four pillars: Planet, People, Place, and Procurement. The “Planet” pillar focuses on environmental stewardship, emphasizing the protection of ocean biodiversity and the reduction of local pollutants (MSC Cruises, 2024).

The Role of Passengers and the Community in Sustainable Cruising

Passengers and local communities have a vital role in promoting sustainable cruising. Their mindful actions and strong advocacy efforts can significantly contribute to preserving marine ecosystems and encouraging responsible tourism. Passengers can make a difference by engaging in eco-friendly behaviours on board, such as conserving water and energy, managing waste effectively, and participating in ship recycling programs. These actions help minimize the environmental footprint of their cruise experience (Garay & Paloti, 2023).

Additionally, choosing sustainable shore excursions is another impactful way passengers can contribute. By supporting local businesses committed to sustainability and avoiding activities that harm the environment, they aid in preserving the natural and cultural heritage of the destinations they visit (CLIA, 2023). Moreover, both passengers and community members can support marine conservation through donations, volunteering, and engaging with organizations focused on marine life protection (Kennedy, 2017). By contributing to these causes, they help counteract the adverse effects of cruise tourism and enhance the health of marine environments.

Advocating for stronger environmental policies in the cruise industry is also crucial. This involves supporting global efforts to reduce emissions, improve waste management, and protect sensitive marine areas (Fox, 2022). Such advocacy can significantly steer the cruise industry towards more sustainable practices.

These collective actions are essential for influencing the cruise industry’s direction towards greater environmental responsibility. By making informed choices and advocating for change, passengers and communities play an essential part in ensuring the preservation of marine ecosystems for future generations.

Conclusion

The future of cruise tourism hinges on our collective ability to embrace sustainability as the cornerstone of innovation and growth. By navigating these waters with care, foresight, and collaboration, the cruise industry can ensure that its legacy is not marked by the environmental wake it leaves behind but by the positive, lasting impact it has on our planet’s precious marine ecosystems.

As we chart this course together, let us be guided by the understanding that the greatest luxury the cruise industry can offer is not just the splendour of its ships or the breadth of its itineraries, but the assurance that the beauty of the oceans and the diversity of life they harbour will be cherished and protected for generations to come.

References

Ahmed, Z. (2022, August 23). Effects of noise pollution from ships on Marine Life. Marine Insight. https://www.marineinsight.com/environment/effects-of-noise-pollution-from-ships-on-marine-life/

Alaska. (2024). CRUISE SHIP AIR QUESTIONS. Alaska – Department of Environmental Conservation – Division of Water. https://dec.alaska.gov/water/cruise-ships/egcs/

Barford, A. (2022, December 8). “Green corridors” for cruise ships won’t be enough. Policy Options. https://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/december-2022/cruise-ships-pollution-regulation/

CLIA. (2023). Charting the Future of Sustainable Cruise Travel . Cruising.org. https://cruising.org/-/media/clia-media/stratcom/charting-the-future-of-sustainable-cruise-travel_october-2023

Foundation, T. R.-W. (2021, August 5). What impact does anchoring have on marine environments?. Green Fins. https://greenfins.net/blog/anchoring-impact/

Fox, A. (2022, January 21). Cruise industry restart demands. Friends of the Earth. https://foe.org/blog/cruise-industry-restart-demands/

Garay, E., & Paloti, M. (2023, June 6). Green cruising. cruisecritic.com. https://www.cruisecritic.com/articles/green-cruising

Garza, A. de la. (2023, June 13). Can cruises become climate change friendly?. Time. https://time.com/6285915/cruise-industry-climate-action-emissions-passengers/

Kennedy, R. (2017, September 13). 5 ways to be a responsible cruise goer. Nature Canada. https://naturecanada.ca/news/blog/5-ways-responsible-cruise-goer/

MSC. (2024). Planet. Sustainability – Planet | MSC Cruises. https://www.msccruises.com/int/about-msc/sustainability/planet

NationalGrid, G. (2022, May 30). What is Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG)?. LNG explained | National Grid Group. https://www.nationalgrid.com/stories/energy-explained/what-is-liquefied-natural-gas-lng

North Texas. (2010, December 15). Cruise ship pollution: Background, laws and regulations, and key issues. EveryCRSReport.com. https://www.everycrsreport.com/reports/RL32450.html#:~:text=During%20a%20typical%20one%2Dweek,25%2C000%20gallons%20of%20oily%20bilge

Thakkar, E. (2023, August 7). What do cruise ships do with sewage and waste?. Cruise Hive. https://www.cruisehive.com/what-do-cruise-ships-do-with-sewage/106631

About Post Author

Tia Bigos

Tia Bigos is a 2nd year Environment and Business student studying at the University of Waterloo. This program blends the critical elements of environmental sustainability with the strategic principles of business management, preparing students for the challenges of integrating environmental considerations into business settings. She is on a co-op term working as a Research Assistant for EnvironFocus Inc.
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