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Cruise ships return to B.C., with tourist dollars and environmental concerns in tow

Simone Kearney-Rodriguez is looking forward to putting cash in the register this weekend when the first crowd of cruise ship passengers pull into port in Victoria, B.C., on Saturday, after the last two cruise seasons were cancelled due to COVID-19.

The owner of the Beaver Gift Shop says her family business almost sunk without the support of hundreds of thousands of cruise tourists that have kept her afloat for more than 30 years.

 “We’re still alive, but it took everything that I had to keep going,” she told CBC’s On the Island.

She’s not alone: according to the Tourism Industry Association of B.C., cruise ships contribute about $2.7 billion annually to the provincial economy, supporting tourism-oriented businesses in coastal cities like Victoria, Vancouver and Prince Rupert.

“We’re a tourist town,” said Bruce Williams, CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce in an interview in the James Bay neighbourhood, where docked tourists stock up on gifts and candy.

“These businesses have always been reliant on tourism and some of them are down 80 or 90 per cent of revenue.”

More than 300 ships are expected to call at B.C. ports between now and November, bringing in upward of a million customers. But along with their tourist dollars are some concerns, including the possible arrival of new cases of COVID and the environmental impact of giant ships floating through delicate coastal ecosystems.

COVID monitoring

The first ship to arrive on B.C.’s coast is the Koningsdam, part of the Holland America line.

The ship hosts a seven-day cruise from San Diego, Calif., to Vancouver, and will arrive at a Victoria port Saturday.

Under federal regulations, cruise ship passengers arriving in Canada need to be fully vaccinated and tested for COVID-19 before boarding at departure points, and are monitored before arrival in Canada.

Dr. Horacio Bach of the University of British Columbia’s faculty of medicine says cruise companies appear to have learned lessons from the early days of the pandemic, when COVID-19 outbreaks forced them to stay at sea for weeks, and now have strong testing regimes and medical facilities on board to prevent problems.

Dirty dumping

Recent research by environmental organizations warns the industry is treating the province’s sensitive coast as a dumping ground for polluted wastewater, and that what bodes well for business is bad news for the environment.

“B.C. is the toilet bowl for the cruise industry,” says Anna Barford, a shipping campaigner at environmental advocacy group

cruise ships return to b c with tourist dollars and environmental concerns in tow
Postcards at a souvenir shop on Robson Street in downtown Vancouver, pictured in June 2020. Souvenir shops in coastal cities like Vancouver, Victoria and Prince Rupert are eagerly awaiting the arrival of cruise ships for the first time in two years. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Barford says cruising creates more greenhouse gas emissions than air travel, and lax Canadian regulations mean billions of litres of potentially dangerous sewage, greywater and washwater are likely dumped in B.C. coastal waters every year.

According to a report released last July, found the environmental benefits of cancelled cruises were “astonishing.” It showed an estimated 220 million litres of sewage, 1.8 billion litres of greywater, and 31 billion litres of washwater — enough to fill more than 13,000 Olympic swimming pools — have been kept out of the Salish and Great Bear seas.

cruise ships return to b c with tourist dollars and environmental concerns in tow 1
In this January 2014 photo, an endangered female orca leaps from the water in Puget Sound west of Seattle, as seen from a federal research vessel that had been tracking the whales. Environmental groups warn unregulated dumping from cruise ships harms B.C.’s delicate ocean ecosystems. (Elaine Thompson/The Canadian Press)

Greywater originates as drainage from sinks, galleys and dishwashers. Washwater is generated by cruise ship scrubbers that are fitted on the vessel’s exhaust system and pull in seawater to filter sulphur dioxide pollutants out of marine fuel.

In a March report from the World Wildlife Fund on vessel dumping in Canada, scrubber washwater — which is up to 100,000 times more acidic than seawater — accounted for 97 per cent of generated waste nationally. 

That report found cruise ships were the top producer of wastewater despite making up only two per cent of the 5,546 ships studied in Canadian waters in 2019.

U.S. vs Canadian regulations

Barford says the laws governing cruise ships on the B.C. coast pale in comparison to those in California — where ships cannot use scrubbers and must burn cleaner fuels — and Alaska, where on-board engineers take water samples, observe environmental practices and report on problems. 

This, says Barford, is what needs to happen in Canada as well.

On April 4, Transport Canada, which sets cruise ship regulations, announced stricter measures for discharging greywater and blackwater (wastewater from bathrooms and toilets). But those regulations, says Barford, are only voluntary.

cruise ships return to b c with tourist dollars and environmental concerns in tow 2
James Bay residents in Victoria have raised concerns about the pollution and congestion that comes with cruise ship season. (Greater Victoria Harbour Authority)

“The Government of Canada plans to make these changes permanent through regulations, and appreciates the cruise ship industry’s willingness to pursue these measures in the interim,” said Transport Canada in a statement.

Without banning scrubbers, insisting on cleaner fuel and putting observers aboard vessels, the B.C. coast will continue to bare the brunt of “prioritizing profit over ocean health and communities,” said Barford.

High emissions

The industry also creates significant carbon emissions.

According to the Germany-based Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union, a single cruise ship accommodating 4,000 passengers is capable of emitting as much carbon dioxide as 85,000 cars.

That’s a challenge for Victoria’s own climate goals. At the end of 2019, B.C.’s last full cruise season, the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority reported that cruise ships and the infrastructure that support them emit the equivalent of 12,136 tonnes of carbon dioxide — roughly three per cent of total emissions generated in the entire Victoria region.

Tightening the rules

On March 1, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority announced ships at berth or at anchor can no longer discharge scrubber washwater. In that announcement, the authority said it will be phasing in an eventual ban on scrubber systems altogether.

As of Friday afternoon, Transport Canada had not responded to CBC when asked if they are considering banning scrubbers or adding observers to cruise ships in Canadian waters.

B.C.’s Transportation Minister Rob Fleming told On The Island Friday the federal government is working with industry this season to clean up cruising.

“In reality, the post-pandemic cruise industry as it relates to discharge in Canadian coastal waters will be a much stricter regime,” said Fleming.

On The Island8:56We spoke with BC’s Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure about the upcoming cruise ship season

Gregor Craigie spoke with Rob Fleming, BC Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure and NDP MLA for Victoria Swan-Lake, about the imminent arrival of the cruise ship season. 8:56

He said the province is looking at installing shore power in Victoria so cruise ships have the option of plugging in and running on “clean, green energy” instead of burning bunker fuel, reducing emissions.

According to the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority, the ships account for 96.3 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions at the city’s cruise terminal.

Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of Our Changing Planet, a CBC News initiative to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.

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