Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

055: Cruising for a Bruising?

As a beach resort community, Avalon is sensitive to factors which might impact visitor perception of our water quality. Beach closure signs along our waterfront do not reassure our visitors or residents, and are especially frustrating given all the City of Avalon has done over the years to improve our water quality. Gone are the "good old days" when snorkelers in the Bay could observe brown, sea-cucumber like forms drifting in the water (thanks to the City's dye tablet program for visiting private vessels and other actions).

In hearings regarding a mandatory sewage treatment plant for Avalon following passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act, both Dr. Bob Given and I independently testified against it. Avalon was a much smaller community, our sewage contained little or no industrial waste, and based on Bob's diving on the sewage outfall the human waste was being taken care of by the ecosystem. A concern of mine regarded the use of chlorine and other halogens to treat the sewage which might introduce toxic chlorinated hydrocarbons into our waters. Avalon has since grown much larger, and sewage volume now probably demands such treatment.

Years back when it was announced that cruise ships would be visiting our port, I quietly questioned the benefits to our community. I was concerned about additional crowding in summer and the increase in sewage and solid waste generated by these visitors. I thought the economic benefit to our community would be minimal. Obviously I was wrong on the economic issues since these visitors bring needed revenue to help ensure jobs for community members in the large "tourist sector" of our economy.

Large cruise ships now carry 2,-5,000 passengers to ports like Avalon. The larger ones are comparable to floating cities like our own... yet they are not subject to the same federal and state air, water and solid waste pollution regulations as Avalon is. This is especially true if the vessel operates under a foreign flag of convenience. Now I don't want to bite the hand that feeds so many here, but this is a consideration that should be weighed when measuring the overall benefit to our community. Fortunately, many of the negatives can be remedied with relatively little investment, ensuring cruise ships provide a maximum benefit to Avalon (and their passengers) with little detrimental environmental effects. The cruise line industry is expected to double the number of passengers by 2010 which makes these considerations even more important.

The non-profit conservation organization Oceana initiated an educational campaign to inform people of environmental problems related to cruise ships, and how those problems might be resolved so ports receive the economic benefits with fewer negative environmental consequences. They will be here in Avalon on August 27th and I hope residents will stop by, listen to their information and ask questions. What are the essential problems identified by Oceana?

According to Oceana, each day a cruise ship with 3,000 passengers and crew generates 30,000 gallons of human sewage ("black water"); 255,000 gallons of "grey water" from bathing, laundry, dishwashing and other operations; seven (7) tons of solid waste (garbage); 7,000 gallons of oily bilge water; and nitrogen-oxide air pollution equivalent to 12,000 automobiles. Cruise ships are largely exempt from the Clean Water Act provisions Avalon must meet. The raw, untreated sewage may be legally dumped once the ship is three miles from shore. I have read the initial studies on factors affecting our own water quality in Avalon Bay. Although there are spikes in bacterial concentration correlated with some cruise ship visits, there is not a consistent pattern shown. Any contamination of the Bay's waters could come from additional use of land-based toilets rather than those on ship. Given normal current patterns, discharge from the visiting ships misses the entrance to our Bay.

However, in addition to the health considerations, there are significant ecological issues that may be associated with such vessels. Black and gray water pollution can introduce diseases to some marine organisms, or cause algal blooms due to increased phosphorus and nitrogen levels. Ballast water carried by large ships to balance their load can carry exotic organisms from other ports of call which then may be released in our waters. In a previous column I gave an example of such introductions and the ecological problems they can cause. Fortunately California prohibits ballast water discharge within 200 miles.

Oceana suggests that the cost to implement better pollution control technologies is not significant relative to the rates charged, and that cruise ship passengers overwhelmingly favor such actions in polls. Solutions like new engine technology, cleaner fuels, modern waste water treatment and emissions control equipment (as required by industries in the L.A. Basin) can be implemented. However Oceana also indicates that some cruise lines have knowingly violated the relatively few pollution laws they are subject to. In 1998 and 1999 alone Royal Caribbean was fined $27 million and Carnival $18 million in 2001 by the federal government for such violations. Oceana suggests independent third-party monitoring may be required.

Yes, I realize that business in general often opposes such rules as an impediment to operating in our State (or its waters)... it's an issue the "Govinator" is running on. However I've often felt "business" itself (based strictly on the profit motive) was not an ethical pursuit... but business leaders can be (and are) ethical. California is currently considering new legislation due to the violation of a no-dumping agreement in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

I don't want anyone to think I'm against cruise ships visiting Avalon. In fact I enjoy cruising myself, and during the winter I work for an environmentally-responsible cruise ship line, Lindblad Expeditions. That line engages in ecotourism throughout the world and donates significantly to the communities and conservation organizations involved in the areas it visits. It has a strict environmental code which all staff and crew must follow. Avalon and our area would be better served if all visiting cruise ships would work towards meeting the conservation goals in our waters that the Conservancy tries to establish here on land. Come join Oceana at the Wrigley stage this coming week to find out for yourself.

© 2003 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays.

Image caption: Cruise ship at anchor offshore of the Casino Dive Park

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material © 2003 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia