The terrible toll of the cruise ship industry

Noise pollution, mounds of trash and an inordinate influx of humanity damage ecosystems from Washington to Alaska.

This article was originally published in Hakai Magazine, an online publication about science and society in coastal ecosystems, and is republished by permission.

After a one-year pandemic pause and a limited season in 2021, cruises to Alaska resumed and surged in popularity in 2022.

This year, an estimated 700,000 passengers will depart Seattle, Washington, on hundreds of different cruises. These travelers voyage on increasingly massive ships—some about three sport fields in length—that can house, feed, and process the waste of upward of 4,000 human beings.

Touted as inexpensive, all-inclusive vacations, cruises deliver thousands of people to the glaciers, fjords, and small towns of southeast Alaska. They are an integral part of the Pacific Northwest’s tourism economy, but they come with environmental and human costs.


Carbon emissions, wastewater discharges, engine and propeller noise, mountains of trash, and an influx of visitors have a cumulative impact on ecosystems and tiny communities.

In this feature, we follow the Oceanic Topaz, a fictional but representative cruise ship, on a seven-day journey from Seattle to Alaska, stopping at various ports.

Route map data by ArcGIS

1. Seattle

This season, 13 ships will make a total of 291 sailings between Seattle and Alaska. The Oceanic Topaz begins its journey in Seattle.

The economic benefits to the city are significant—in 2022, cruise tourists were expected to spend around US $900-million in the greater Seattle area, supporting some 5,500 jobs. Those visitors spent 238,000 nights in hotel rooms in downtown Seattle, accounting for about 10% of all downtown bookings.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, cruise tourism was on the rise in Seattle. In 2019, roughly 600,000 cruise passengers visited the city. Each passenger made two entries during their journey, resulting in 1.2 million visits. 
By Mark Garrison, data from the Port of Seattle

The Port of Seattle is aware of the pollution caused by idling diesel engines while a cruise ship is in port. “We have to keep being absolutely vigilant about the environmental impacts,” says Stephanie Jones Stebbins, the port’s managing director of maritime operations.

But how green is the port? Seattle offers plug-in electric power at one of its cruise terminals and is aiming to have its second terminal plug-in ready for the 2024 season. Yet only 37% of cruise ships used this option in 2021, and as of August 2022, this usage had declined to 24%. So the majority of ships idle their diesel engines for nine to 11 hours while passengers snap photos at Pike Place Market and the Space Needle.

2. Puget Sound

Jose More/VWPics/Alamy Stock Photo

Once the Oceanic Topaz departs Seattle, it glides north through Puget Sound and the Juan de Fuca Strait. As the ship, which is in the midsize range for those heading to Alaska, passes through the shadow of the Olympic Mountains, its 3,600 passengers go about their daily business, flushing toilets, showering, and brushing teeth.

Each passenger will produce a daily average of 30 liters of sewage—also known as black water—and about 250 liters of wastewater from showers, pools, laundry, and other non-sewage runoff known as gray water. For a ship carrying 3,600 people, that amounts to about 400 eight-person hot tubs worth of sewage and over 3,000 hot tubs worth of gray water each day.

In these waters, the Oceanic Topaz will keep its sewage and gray-water tanks closed. In 2004, the Washington State Department of Ecology signed a memorandum of understanding with all the major cruise ship lines that forbids any wastewater discharge in Washington State waters. But the ship will dump the waste elsewhere along the route.

3. Strait of Juan de Fuca

Brandon Cole Marine Photography/Alamy Stock Photo

Beyond Puget Sound, the Oceanic Topaz’s diesel engines propel the ship to a speed of about 40 kilometers per hour. The engine thrum is so loud, it interferes with killer whales’ ability to echolocate prey, reducing the marine mammals’ chances of catching the chinook salmon they depend on for survival.

In fact, vessel noise reduces the whales’ ability to hunt by up to five hours per day.

4. Vancouver Island

The Oceanic Topaz then sails northward past the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. By now, the passengers are settled into their floating hotel, beneath an exhaust stack that spews tonnes of carbon dioxide from engines running almost constantly during the voyage.

A ship the size of the Oceanic Topaz generates at least 2,800 tonnes of CO2 during its seven-day trip. That’s the equivalent of 600 gasoline-powered cars driving for an entire year.

5. Hecate Strait

Design Pics Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

During cruise season, BC waters are a dumping ground for untreated gray water that can have fecal coliform levels higher than domestic sewage, as well as pollutants such as detergents, oil, grease, heavy metals, and medical waste.

At the northern tip of Vancouver Island, the Scott Islands marine National Wildlife Area—home to one of the world’s largest rookeries of Steller sea lions and 50% of the planet’s Cassin’s auklets—is exposed to four billion liters of gray water and treated sewage each year.

Hecate Strait is not spared either. As Oceanic Topaz enters the wide, relatively shallow waters of the strait, it opens its tanks to discharge treated sewage and untreated gray water. In April 2022, Transport Canada changed the wastewater guidelines for cruise ships to discourage the discharge of gray water or treated sewage within 5.6 kilometers of shore. But the guidelines are voluntary, though Transport Canada says it plans to make mandatory regulations for the 2023 cruise season.

On its total seven-day journey, the Oceanic Topaz dumps 800,000 liters of treated sewage and 6.3 million liters of gray water.

6. Stephens Passage

Sandy Hasbrouck

The Oceanic Topaz sails into Alaska waters and Stephens Passage, a rich fishing ground where commercial fishers catch salmon and halibut. The ship keeps its sewage and gray-water tanks closed: about one-third of all cruise ships have no discharge permit in Alaska. The Oceanic Topaz will empty its tanks when it returns to Canadian waters.

In addition, cruise ships can dump another type of wastewater without limit into most waters of Alaska and British Columbia: scrubber discharge.

In 2020, the International Maritime Organization required all ships to either burn low-sulfur fuel or install cleaning systems (known as scrubbers) to remove pollutants from cheaper high-sulfur diesel fuels. Open-loop scrubbers spray sea water into the ship’s exhaust to remove sulfur oxides, and in the process, they create acidic wastewater that’s pumped back into the ocean. Closed-loop systems use fresh water treated with chemicals, and deposit smaller but more concentrated amounts of waste into the ocean. In 2019, 14 cruise ships in Alaska burned low-sulfur fuel. Of those burning high-sulfur fuel, nine ships used hybrid systems that switch between closed and open loop, and 17 ships used open-loop systems.

Scrubber discharge contributes to ocean acidification and contains raised levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons—which can have moderate to acute toxic effects on aquatic life and birds—as well as heavy metals such as vanadium, nickel, copper, and zinc. Scrubber waste has been found to have severe toxic effects on several copepod species found in the Atlantic Ocean. On its journey, Oceanic Topaz will generate about 210 million liters of acidic scrubber wastewater—or the equivalent of 84 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Cruise ships are responsible for the vast majority of scrubber discharge, which contributes to ocean acidification and can have toxic effects on marine life.
Courtesy of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Canada*

That’s a concern for commercial fishers such as Sandy Hasbrouck, who documented a run-in with a cruise ship in a video taken in August 2022. Hasbrouck says her crew was hauling in lines, when a large cruise ship heading for them refused to change course and blew its horn at the fishing boat. “When they went by, they threw up this huge wave. They’re just rude,” she says. Hasbrouck then saw what she described as “bubbly, crazy, foamy water that was a weird color” in the ship’s wake.

7. Skagway

On this cruise, the Oceanic Topaz does not stop at Skagway, the historic jumping-off point for miners during the Klondike gold rush, but as many as four cruise ships per day dock in the community during the height of the season. Unlike the ports in Seattle and Juneau, Skagway, as of 2022, has no plug-in power capability. Ships run their diesel engines while in port.

The Skagway Traditional Council, a federally recognized tribal government, is monitoring air quality at three locations around Skagway. Their study began in 2020 and will provide a unique comparison between the cruise-free pandemic year and the cruising season in 2022, which reached about 75% of capacity. The study is focused on particulate matter (PM) 2.5 microns and smaller, which is dangerous to human health because it can enter deep into the lungs and bloodstream.

Reuben Cash, environmental coordinator for the Skagway Traditional Council, reports that during the 2021 season, the PM 2.5 pollution levels were elevated in areas closer to the cruise ship port. “It seems like what we’re seeing here is possibly, closer to the source, more concentration of these aerosols,” Cash says.

An air monitoring study published in 2014 that included Skagway found levels of nitrogen oxide, an ingredient in smog, five to 10 times higher than at other Alaska sites where fewer cruise ships are present.

8. Icy Strait Point

Steve Heap/Shutterstock

The Oceanic Topaz then makes port at Icy Strait Point, a former seafood cannery transformed into a gateway to outdoor adventures—and a strategy for economic survival for the Huna Tlingit people. Located about two kilometers from the town of Hoonah, population 900, the Icy Strait Point entertainment complex brought in 267,000 cruise tourists in 2019.

Hoonah has been a center of Tlingit life for millennia, part of a culture that spans the islands and inlets of Icy Strait, including what is now Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. Once sustained by logging and fishing—now in decline—Hoonah has embraced cruise tourism. The site boasts the world’s longest zipline, ATV tours, and a chance to view brown bears in the wild. All sales from these tours benefit Huna Totem, an Alaska Native corporation that returns profits back to the Huna Tlingit people.

Some members of the community believe Hoonah has become just another coastal attraction. “The cruise line industry has stepped all over Hoonah,” says Wanda Culp, a former resident who left Hoonah in 2021 after living there for more than 40 years. “There’s nothing more of a village in Hoonah that I can see. We’ve been gutted.”

Wanda Culp describes how the cruise industry is impacting the environment and culture of the Huna Tlingit people like herself. In 2021, Culp moved to Juneau from Hoonah where she had lived for more than 40 years. Video by Connor Meyer, edited by Meigan Henry

Culp recounts the time tourists once wandered into a friend’s home, taking photos. “It’s a travesty. They’ve forced us from our nests. There are more Hoonah people in Juneau now than there are in Hoonah.”

9. Glacier Bay National Park

The Oceanic Topaz is not allowed to visit the showpiece of the cruise route: Glacier Bay National Park. Through a competitive bidding process, the National Park Service (NPS) limits the number of vessels entering its waters to 150 each season. Worthy ships agree to abide by certain rules, such as using lighter marine diesel instead of heavy fuels, eschewing single-use plastics, adhering to speed restrictions, and controlling discharge.

The NPS prohibits the discharge of wastewater into the bay. But, in two highly publicized violations, officials slapped a $20,000 fine on Princess Cruises for dumping 250,000 liters of chlorinated pool water in 2011, and Holland America paid $17,000 in 2018 for dumping 85,000 liters of gray water. To prevent such violations, Glacier Bay National Park announced in 2022 the creation of an environmental monitoring program, funded by the cruise industry, that will place unannounced inspectors on cruise ships traveling in the park.

The NPS places monitors on almost half of all ships to observe behavior around humpback whales, whose numbers were in steep decline between 2014 and 2018 because of a marine heatwave. From a high point of 163 whales, the number plummeted to 45 in 2018. It increased to 128 individuals in 2022, says NPS wildlife biologist Christine Gabriele.

A 2018 study Gabriele helped write found that cruise vessel noise interferes with humpback whales’ ability to communicate. The park works with cruise lines and ship captains to reduce the impacts of noise and the possibility of collisions. “What we do to control noise is have the vessels go slower in areas where there are whales,” Gabriele says. “We also try to have traffic separation—in other words, keeping the ships away from typical whale routes.”

High Country News · Humpback - Call - Cruise - Ships

Click the play button to hear the park’s humpback whales socialize beneath a rumbling cruise ship. Audio courtesy of Christine Gabriele

10. Juneau

Steve Heap/Shutterstock

When the Oceanic Topaz docks in Juneau, it’s one of seven large cruise ships to visit this central tourism hub in a single day. Karla Hart, a tour operator turned community activist and a lifelong Juneau resident, has seen the city go from one small ship per week in the 1970s to a tourism frenzy that Alaska’s capital now experiences each summer.

On the day of Oceanic Topaz’s visit, thousands of people will take some sort of tour—typically whale watching excursions or helicopter flights to the Mendenhall Glacier. These tours generate a tremendous amount of noise. Hart’s home is on the shortcut flight path between the airport and the glacier. Dozens of helicopters roar over her house every day—from 8:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m. “Helicopter noise is different from a lot of other noises in that it’s very vibrational,” she says. “I find it incredibly stressful.”

Hart believes an all-out ban on cruise ships is unrealistic, but she is supportive of daily limits—as are the majority of people who live in Juneau. In January 2023, the Juneau Assembly passed a policy recommendation calling for a limit of five cruise ships per day in Juneau, based in part on results of a 2022 commissioned study that found that 74% of residents polled supported limiting cruise ships.

A commissioned study found that 74% of the residents polled supported limiting cruise ships in Juneau’s harbor to five vessels per day.

Whale watching trips are another source of noise and stress—for residents and whales. Heidi Pearson, a University of Alaska Southeast marine biologist, researches how humpbacks respond to whale watching vessels. A 2019 study she published showed that whales traveled faster in the presence of tour boats. “They changed direction more frequently and they had a faster breathing rate,” Pearson says. Alaska regulations require boats to stay at least 100 meters from whales. “I don’t think the current regulation is sufficient to prevent behavioral impacts on whales from boats,” Pearson says.

11. Ketchikan

The Oceanic Topaz’s final Alaska port of call is the historic port of Ketchikan. Most of the vessel’s 3,600 passengers disembark and swarm the city of 8,100 people.

Cruise tourism creates nearly 1,750 of the town’s 4,090 jobs and the tourists pump $159-million into Ketchikan’s economy each year. But some residents, including Mary L. Stephenson, who’s worked in tourism in Alaska since 2006, feel the benefits are small compared with the overwhelming crowd of tourists. In a single day, cruise ships can easily double the town’s population, and the impact is insidious.

The Ward Cove cruise ship dock, which opened in 2021 and is used primarily by Norwegian Cruise Line, relies on a fleet of constantly looping tour buses to shuttle passengers to shopping and other excursions. “It’s chaos,” Stephenson says. “The sidewalks are narrow. The merchants and attractions are busy all the time. And the restaurants, if they’re good, have a long line to wait for them.” Stephenson noted that the City of Ketchikan and the cruise industry have been working over the past year to solve the tour bus issue.

12. Campbell River

On its way south, Oceanic Topaz will travel back down the west side of Vancouver Island. But even if it took the east side, through the Strait of Georgia, it would—like every other ship on the Alaska cruise circuit—avoid a stop at Campbell River.

That’s despite the fact that 16 years ago, the Wei Wai Kum First Nation teamed up with the City of Campbell River and the federal and provincial governments to build a CAN $16-million port facility in hopes of attracting cruise ship tourism.

Build it and they will come? Not cruise ships. Only 10 ships made port here in its first year, and now the Wei Wai Kum Nation is debating what to do with the aging facility, which has sat mostly empty since opening in 2007.

13. Victoria

Victoria is the Oceanic Topaz’s last stop before returning to Seattle. Because of the U.S. Passenger Vessel Services Act, all foreign-flagged cruise ships must stop in a Canadian port on their journey between Seattle and Alaska. Congress passed temporary legislation exempting the rule for the 2021 season, but it remains in place in 2023. As a result of the rule, most of these ships make a brief layover in British Columbia’s capital city.

Victoria resident Marg Gardiner, former president of the James Bay Neighbourhood Association, and a vocal critic of cruise ships and their poor record as corporate citizens, says most ships arrive in the late afternoon or evening. This allows little time for visitors to do much of anything or spend their dollars. But even when few passengers disembark, there’s one thing that will depart the Oceanic Topaz and probably every cruise ship that docks in Victoria: tonnes of trash.

All cruise ships have the option to offload the garbage accumulated during their seven-day voyage in Victoria, rather than at their home port of Seattle. In 2019, cruise ships added 2,100 tonnes of trash to the region’s Hartland Landfill—equivalent to just over 100 fully loaded garbage trucks each year.

Roman Mikhailiuk/Shutterstock

Though the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation estimates 75 to 85% of cruise ship solid waste is incinerated onboard, that still means the Oceanic Topaz alone will leave behind about eight tonnes of waste—food trimmings, liquids, and mattresses, for example—during its visit to Victoria.

Gardiner finds it ironic that the Capital Regional District (CRD), which manages solid waste for the greater Victoria area, is trying to get residents to reduce their waste. “How can you ask us not to create garbage when we’re accepting all this foreign waste that belongs in the United States, at its home port?” Gardiner says. The CRD announced landfill-expansion plans in 2020, followed by local protests. In 2022, the district voted to triple trash fees for cruise ships to $500 per tonne.

Cruise ships send thousands of tonnes of garbage to Victoria’s Hartland Landfill each year. In 2022, the Capital Regional District, which oversees the city’s waste, voted to triple trash fees for cruise ships to $500 per tonne.
Kevin Oke/Alamy Stock Photo

14. Seattle

On the seventh and final day of its journey, the Oceanic Topaz returns to Seattle. Many passengers will make their way to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to travel home. The Port of Seattle estimates that 85% of cruise passengers arrive and depart Seattle by air.

Elizabeth Burton, a Seattle-based activist with the organization Seattle Cruise Control, calculated that the total climate impact of a typical Alaska cruising season, beginning and ending in Seattle (including flights), is equivalent to one-third of the city’s entire annual carbon emissions.

On top of carbon emissions, cruises are vectors for disease spread. In February 2020, a Carnival Corporation ship, the Diamond Princess, quarantined for three weeks in Japan with one of the earliest serious outbreaks of COVID-19 outside China. And norovirus is an ongoing risk on ships. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a norovirus outbreak among 77 passengers on a Carnival cruise ship traveling between Seattle and Alaska in 2022.

Whether it’s disease spread, carbon emissions, wastewater pollution, noise impacts, trash, or thousands of tourists, the cumulative impact of cruising is overwhelming. The appeal of an easy, all-inclusive trip through dramatic landscapes—and the argument for economic gains—is understandable. But as our fictional Oceanic Topaz shows, the regions that host these mammoth floating hotels also have a lot to lose.

Andrew Engelson is an award-winning freelance journalist and editor with with over 20 years of experience. He writes from Seattle, Washington. This article first appeared in Hakai Magazine and is republished here with permission. Read more stories like this at We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

“Cruise Ship Invasion” was thoroughly fact-checked by Hakai Magazine staff. Below is a brief list of some of our main sources.

Puget Sound

Wastewater figures from Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, multiplied by seven for a seven-day cruise.

Hot tub comparison based on figures above and volume information for an eight-person tub from Swim University.

Juan de Fuca Strait

Impact of vessel noise on whales’ ability to hunt from Marine Environmental Research.

Vancouver Island

We calculated CO2 emissions for a seven-day cruise with 3,600 passengers using the model from this paper in Energies.

The comparison to gasoline-powered cars is from the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Stephens Passage

We estimated scrubber waste based on the open-loop system described in Offshore Energy and a scrubber flow rate of 350 m3/hour, cited by the EPA, the Exhaust Gas Cleaning Systems Association, and

Icy Strait Point

Tourism information for Hoonah was compiled from CruiseMapper, the US Forest ServiceKTOO Public Media, and an interview with Wanda Culp.

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve

Air quality and cruise ship data from the US National Park Service.

Underwater noise effects on marine mammals, including humpback whales from Frontiers in Marine Science.


Perspectives on tourism from interviews with Karla Hart and Heidi Pearson as well as a 2022 Juneau Tourism Survey.

Information on humpback whale response to whale watching from Frontiers in Marine Science.


Cruise tourism and spending figures from Cruise Lines International Association.

Other information from interview with Mary L. Stephenson.

Campbell River

Data on port facility from Campbell River Mirror and the Globe and Mail.


Details of the US Passenger Vessel Services Act from US Customs and Border Protection.

Economic impacts of the cruise industry from

Information about Victoria waste from the Capital Regional District, and new landfill fee from Victoria News.

Additional perspectives from interview with Marg Gardiner.


Figures on cruise passenger arrivals and spending from the 2019 Port of Seattle Cruise Ship Industry report.

Air travel statistic from the 2019 Port of Seattle Alaska Cruise Passenger Survey.

Calculation for greenhouse gas emissions from Seattle Cruise Control.

Information on cruise ship disease outbreaks from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Boston Hospitality Review.


Video of cruise ship in Juneau by BlackBoxGuild/Pond5

Route map data by ArcGIS

Video of cruise ship in Seattle by BlackBoxGuild/Shutterstock

Seattle visitors graph by Mark Garrison

Photo of hot tubs on a cruise ship by Jose More/VWPics/Alamy Stock Photo

Photo of killer whales by Brandon Cole Marine Photography/Alamy Stock Photo

Video of cruise ship exhaust by Kaulfuss Media/Shutterstock

Photo of Hecate Strait by Design Pics Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

Photo of scrubber discharge on water by Sandy Hasbrouck

Graph of scrubber discharge by WWF-Canada. *Use of graph does not mean the organization endorses this story.

Photo of cruise ship with wilderness in background by Darryl Brooks/Alamy Stock Photo

Photo of Icy Strait Point by Steve Heap/Shutterstock

Video of Wanda Culp interview by Connor Meyer, edited by Meigan Henry

Video of cruise ship in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve by Rekindle Photo and Video/Shutterstock

Audio of humpback in Glacier Bay courtesy of Christine Gabriele

Photo of ships docked in Juneau by Steve Heap/Shutterstock

Time-lapse video of passengers disembarking in Ketchikan by Felix Wong

Video of cruise ship passing Campbell River by Bennett Whitnell

Photo of garbage dump by Roman Mikhailiuk/Shutterstock

Photo of Hartland Landfill in Victoria by Kevin Oke/Alamy Stock Photo

Video of Seattle skyline by PSA Imaging/Shutterstock