Cruise ships use Caribbean Sea as dump for solid waste

Environmentalists say debris dumped in the ocean can entangle sea creatures, damage water quality and alter ecosystems.

cruise ship 88 248 (photo credit: )
cruise ship 88 248
(photo credit: )
Kilometers from shore in the open Caribbean Sea, cruise ships are dumping ground-up glass, rags and cardboard packaging. But vessels in other waters such as the Baltic and North seas are prohibited from throwing any solid waste overboard other than food scraps. The difference? Many countries with coastlines on the world's most fragile seas abide by a United Nations dumping ban that requires them to treat ship-generated garbage on land. Caribbean islands, however, have yet to adopt the ban, saying they simply don't have the capacity to treat ship garbage on shore. They also fear the ban could push ships to dock in less-regulated ports of call. "We don't have space to take nothing from nobody," said Travis Johnson, assistant harbor master in Saba, an island of 1,500 people that is building a new pier to accommodate larger cruise ships. The UN's International Maritime Organization outlawed dumping in 1993 for the Caribbean, a largely enclosed area where the string of islands blocks currents that would flush waste into the Atlantic Ocean. It will not take effect, however, until enough of the surrounding nations report their capacity for treating trash from cruise ships - information that the vast majority of nations so far have withheld. The UN created the ban to protect areas that are vulnerable because of heavy ship traffic or sensitive ecology. It has already taken effect in the Antarctic, the Baltic Sea, the North Sea and the Persian Gulf and is due to come into force in the Mediterranean in May. Environmentalists say debris dumped in the ocean can entangle sea creatures, damage water quality and alter ecosystems by providing habitats for opportunistic organisms. Ignoring the ban also has its consequences for tourism. Some trash dumped in the ocean washes ashore with the winds and currents, fouling the beaches. In the Cayman Islands, the government has traced milk cartons on shore to a passing cruise ship. "If you just dump this out at sea, eventually it gets back up on land," said Jeff Ramos, a Curacao-based US Coast Guard officer. In the Mediterranean, environmental officials say coastal nations are highly aware of marine litter and did not resist the ban. "The issue of garbage from ships is very well-documented, at least in our region," said Lilia Khodjet El Khil, a Malta-based officer with the Regional Marine Pollution Emergency Response Center for the Mediterranean. Under the current Caribbean regulations, ships can begin dumping garbage, including metal, glass and paper, five kilometers from shore as long as it is ground to less than an inch. Almost anything but plastic can be dumped beyond 40 km. The ban, if approved, would outlaw discharging of any solid waste at any distance except for food, which could still be dumped five km. from shore. The islands scattered across the Caribbean have struggled to establish a common policy because when it comes to the cruise industry, they see themselves as competitors. Cruise ship arrivals are major economic events, with passengers spending roughly $1.5 billion annually in Caribbean ports. Governments are wary of driving away ships that might find fewer requirements or lower fees elsewhere. In one notorious example, Carnival Cruise Line withdrew from Grenada in 1999 amid a dispute over $1.50-a-head tax to pay for a new landfill. "Countries haven't forgotten that," said Christopher Corbin, a Jamaica-based officer with the United Nations Environmental Program. "They are worried that they will get played off against each other." A trade group that speaks for the cruise industry would not give its position on the ban when asked by The Associated Press, other than to say it abides by all current regulations and already is taking steps on its own to eliminate overboard dumping. Most ships under the umbrella of the Cruise Lines International Association have stopped discharges of solid waste in the Caribbean, according to a statement from the Florida-based group. It said some cruise liners, equipped with on-board incinerators, compactors and recycling programs, now generate less non-recycled waste than resorts on land. The amount of garbage washing up on the islands from cruise ships has decreased significantly over the last 15 years, said Allen Chastanet, a former chairman of the Caribbean Tourism Organization. Small, developing countries have not been able to impose the ban also because of divisions over who should pay to treat waste, said Chastanet, the tourism minister for St. Lucia, which has taken steps on its own to build new waste treatment plants. The UN and the US Coast Guard have held seminars on six islands over the last couple years to push for a regional approach in the wider Caribbean, which includes the Gulf of Mexico. The officers have stressed how vulnerable their tourism-driven economies are to pollution fouling their coastlines. But advocates acknowledge it's a tough sell. "There is a very strong feeling about taking other people's garbage, what's considered developed countries' garbage," Corbin said. "There's a stigma associated with trash."