Environmental Impacts and Disturbances from 

Cruise Ships in the Arctic

(from ASMA Report 2009)


The number of cruise ships operating in the Arctic is rapidly increasing. These ships are traveling to the region for the scenery and to actively seek out areas of special interest, including exceptional wildlife viewing opportunities. Wildlife is a primary attraction for polar tourists. Polar ecosystems, particularly in coastal environments, and wildlife migratory events provide tourists with opportunities to view many species of land and marine mammals as well as a remarkable diversity of birds. However, because cruise ships are specifically seeking out such events and opportunities, the potential is created for significant impacts on concentrations of wildlife due to disturbance from the ship.

There are numerous ways passenger ships can cause environmental harm. Emission of substances to the local air and ocean, possible incidents including sinkings and groundings, ship operations unsuitable for polar conditions and the inappropriate behavior of passengers ashore are the most prominent impacts. The 2004 U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy reported that, while at sea, the average cruise-ship passenger generates about eight gallons of sewage per day and an average cruise ship can generate a total of 532,000 to 798,000 liters of sewage and 3.8 million liters of wastewater from sinks, showers and laundries each week, as well as large amounts of solid waste (garbage). The average cruise ship will also produce more than 95,000 liters of oily bilge water from engines and machinery a week.

Sewage, solid waste and oily bilge water release are regulated through MARPOL. There are no restrictions on the release of treated wastewater. MARPOL restrictions typically prescribe the allowed distance from shore and rate at which wastes can be released or requires ships to deposit them in shore-side reception facilities. However, the Arctic region lacks infrastructure to adequately dispose of bilge water, sewage and solid waste. Many Arctic communities do not even have sufficient facilities to deal with the waste of their own communities, let alone that of tourist vessels. When ships are forced to stockpile wastes onboard where reception facilities are lacking, the risk of illegal or accidental release into sensitive areas is heightened. The alternative to depositing waste into onshore facilities is onboard incineration, a practice that also brings with it concerns about localized air pollution.

The extent of the impacts on different Arctic species from cruise ships is difficult to assess due to the lack of Arctic-specific baseline information on wildlife and the relatively recent increase in cruise ship activity. The cruise ship industry has a vested interest in maintaining healthy wildlife populations; however, there are currently no common best practices for the circumpolar Arctic as there is in the Antarctic through the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. The Arctic’s one cruise organization, the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators, is limited in scope with its geographic range in the Svalbard, Jan Mayen and Greenland area. Cooperation among cruise ship operators, in partnership with academic and regulatory bodies, is necessary to ensure more sustainable eco-tourism in the Arctic.


  •  1. Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment Report 2009

Arctic Council, 2009, Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA), Arctic Council.©