Commentary: Cruise ship season is here, and it’s going to be messy

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      Transport Canada must be the busiest federal ministry in the country. When you have to regulate all the cars, trains, and planes, you’re going to miss some things. Like boats and emails.

      They’re easy to miss, those ships so far out of sight. In fact, at, we have been trying to reach Transport Canada to talk about ships, particularly cruise ships, since August of last year. This is because last year’s measures on cruise ships’ dumping waste into our waters had more holes in it than a toilet bowl made out of a colander. Because of this, BC’s coastal waters have been contaminated, putting at risk endangered killer whales, climate-mitigating kelp forests, and the food security of many coastal communities and First Nations.

      It took a few months and a lot of expertise to figure out what was wrong with last year’s measures. A 2023 interim order led many people to believe that Transport Canada was finally addressing the more than 31 billion litres—around the same amount as half the world’s population flushing their toilets once—of sewage, contaminated greywater, and scrubber wastewater that enter the coastal waters of British Columbia annually. But it really wasn’t, because two-thirds of ship waste comes from cruise liners—and Transport Canada’s interim order gives cruise liners a lot of breaks.

      These breaks include loose and vague instructions as to where cruise liners can dump their waste, based on the size of each ship’s storage tank. The interim order also gives ships access to large and unregulated patches of water, or “toilet bowls” in the middle of the Great Bear Sea, and ignores the biggest source of cruise ship pollution: scrubber wastewater.

      Scrubbers, devices on ships to treat exhaust gasses, are mechanical cheats used to help cruise ships get clean fuel ratings. They take sulphur from fuel and dump it into the sea in the form of sludge, essentially turning air pollution into water pollution. A growing list of countries and ports around the world now ban the discharge of this heavy-metal-laden wastewater. California has disallowed it for years. 

      In fact, it's part of the reason why cruise liners wait to cross into Canadian jurisdiction before they dump their waste. There was a 54 per cent increase of cruise ship passengers coming through the Port of Vancouver between 2022 and 2023, and this year is likely to break even more records.

      Transport Canada has an opportunity to plug the holes in last year’s interim order, because it’s supposed to update it this coming June. And because the ministry is incredibly busy dealing with all the other things, experts at and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society are happy to share our suggestions for watertight cruise ship pollution measures. 

      This includes, first and foremost, putting the lid down on the toilet bowls in the Great Bear Sea by extending cruise ship discharge regulations to the entirety of Canada’s territorial sea; prohibiting the use of scrubbers in Canada’s territorial waters; and putting into place regular, independent, third-party monitoring while cruise ships are underway to ensure discharge requirements are met. This could be funded using a per-passenger fee, similar to how Alaska funded its pre-pandemic cruise ship observer program.

      These are the basics. If they really want to make the measures leak-proof and protect coastal waters, they should legally require cruise ships to have holding tanks that last the duration of the voyage. To protect our many beautiful and fragile fjords, they should also eliminate the geographical exemption allowing cruise ships to discharge sewage and greywater in areas where the shores are narrower than six nautical miles wide. On top of that, they could get rid of the exception that permits cruise ships to discharge sewage and greywater within three nautical miles of shore if there are no onshore waste reception facilities on the ship’s intended course.

      We know that Transport Canada doesn’t want to leave boats out, and we’re here to help! But first they’ll need to reply to our emails.