SeaKeepers' Currents

Cruising with SeaKeepers


High Stakes on the High Seas: Why cruise ships pollute.

Written by contributing blogger Michael Moore Jr.  Edited by Brittany Stockman.

I recently ran into an old high school friend.  After exchanging the usual pleasantries, this happened:

“What are you doing lately?”

“I work for a nonprofit that protects and restores the sea. You?”

“I work for a major cruise line.  You probably hate major cruise lines.”

I was a bit taken aback.  I do not know if I hate the cruise industry. I wouldn’t hate a hotel on a nature preserve.  A hotel on the nature preserve contributes to the greening of the modern world, by allowing people to enjoy nature while promoting environmental conservation.  Animals that live in nature preserves are kept under a watchful eye.  If their population starts to dwindle, measures are taken until the animals bounce back in number. If visiting tourists do not see rare animals thriving, the hotel loses business.

To learn more about why this works, let’s take a small example and extrapolate to the big picture.  If there is an empty lot on a city block which isn’t owned by any of the surrounding neighbors, it will typically become overgrown.  Soon, it might even fill with trash.  Although the neighborhood as a whole would benefit from a clean lot, no one in particular wants to be the one to take responsibility.  The lot will become increasingly dilapidated over time, creating an unsightly area.  Essentially, this is the “Tragedy of the Commons.”

Take the same situation but assume that the empty lot is owned by a homeowner on the street.  Intuitively, she mows the lot and keeps it clean. Perhaps, she puts up signs that warn against littering.  She does this because the lot is her private property.  She might plant flowers, bushes and trees and perhaps allow the public to visit.  Now, we start to see the correlation between ownership and preservation.

Similarly, ocean stewardship benefits from distinct property rights; however, there is a key difference in regards to the cruise industry.  No one owns the high seas; the ocean is a common resource.  The area beyond each nation’s 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone is simultaneously no one’s territory and everyone’s territory.

Like the hotel on a nature preserve, the cruise industry also exists to bring tourists closer to nature.  Unfortunately, just two decades ago, a cruise ship was one of the most polluting machines in existence.  Cruises dumped tons of garbage and waste-water into the ocean.  At one point, the industry accounted for as much as three-fourths of the waste entering the ocean.  Cruise lines would ignore environmental regulations because of the lack of incentive to care for this open-access resource.  Why should they bear the costs of disposing of such waste if they could do it for free?  Just like the abandoned lot in the city, the oceans might just benefit from the assignment of property rights.

On the bright side…

Born of a realization that the sea is not as infinite and resilient as it once seemed, major seafaring corporations have begun to recognize the folly of polluting their main attraction. The cruise industry has made significant progress to reduce its negative impact on marine resources. In fact, the amount of waste cruise ships produce and discard has decreased continuously over the past 20 years.  Now you see, even without distinct property rights, the cruise industry managed to develop a sense of stewardship over the oceans. They still have a long way to go, but encouraging this feeling of ownership is a giant stride in the right direction.

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