Canada's promised cruise ship pollution order is missing in action

In 2022, the federal government committed to introducing mandatory measures in 2023 to protect the coast from cruise ship pollution. Cruise ship season is on – but where are those mandatory measures?

A new cruise ship season has begun on the BC coast, and it promises to be another busy one. Last year was a record-breaking season for cruise ships visiting BC ports, and the industry is expecting this year to be even bigger, with a projected 8% increase in cruise ship visits – bringing up to 850,000 passengers to Victoria and 1.3 million to Vancouver. 

These ships will ply the BC coast up to Alaska, passing through some of the most beautiful and biodiverse marine areas in the world. This route includes the Northern Shelf Bioregion, often referred to as the Great Bear Sea, where Indigenous nations in partnership with the federal and provincial governments are creating Canada’s first network of marine protected areas (MPAs).

Unfortunately, with these massive ships comes a massive amount of pollution being discharged into the waters off British Columbia. A report from WWF published last year found that while cruise ships only represent 2% of the vessels in Canadian waters, they account for over 2/3 of the waste that is discharged from ships into the water.

In 2021, West Coast Environmental Law published a report with that showed that Canadian regulations regarding cruise ship pollution were much weaker than regulations in Washington State and Alaska. These lax regulations incentivize cruise ships to dump their pollution in Canadian waters. The report garnered a lot of attention from the media and the public, with a Guardian newspaper headline describing Canada’s Pacific coast as a “toilet bowl” for cruise ship waste

In response to our report, Transport Canada worked with the cruise ship industry to develop voluntary measures to reduce cruise ship discharges in Canadian waters for the 2022 cruise ship season. The measures were a positive step, but far from perfect: they were voluntary rather than mandatory, and they didn’t address the biggest source of cruise ship pollution, scrubber washwater

When announcing the voluntary measures, Transport Canada also stated that they would issue a legal order in 2023 so that these cruise ship measures would become legally binding, and they committed to developing an approach to reducing scrubber washwater discharges. Then, in February 2023, Canada stood on the world stage at the IMPAC5 marine conservation conference, along with coastal Indigenous nations and the Province to announce the endorsement of the Action Plan for the Great Bear Sea MPA network

At the time, we had significant optimism that the issue of cruise ship pollution (and the “toilet bowl” moniker for BC) was finally going to be legally addressed. But now, in May 2023, with a likely record-breaking cruise ship season in full swing and despite all the assurances and promises made by the federal government over the past year, there are no new mandatory measures in place to reduce cruise ship discharge. 

Instead, Transport Canada has renewed its voluntary measures for the 2023 season, stating that these measures will “set the foundation for a regulatory approach in 2023.”  

As the cruise tourism industry continues to grow, it may be generating economic benefits for some. But these benefits cannot sacrifice the health of the coast, and the marine ecosystems that our communities depend on. 

As our report demonstrated, other places already have stronger regulations in place for cruise ships, and still have strong cruise ship economies. There is no reason why we cannot do the same to protect ocean health here.




Top photo: Can Pac Swire via Flickr Creative Commons 

Michael Bissonnette, Staff Lawyer