Cruise season is back in Halifax—with newer anti-pollution rules. But how much has changed? | News | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST
Halifax will see 204 cruise ship visits in 2024. That's a boon for business, but comes at an environmental cost.

Cruise season is back in Halifax—with newer anti-pollution rules. But how much has changed?

As many as 375,000 cruise tourists will visit Halifax in 2024. But environmental groups say federal regulations still aren’t protecting Canada’s waters.

As cruise ships go, the Viking Octantis—arriving Thursday in Halifax—is a relative minnow among whales. At 205 metres long and with room for 378 guests, its passenger load could fit 11 times over within the 4,485-passenger MSC Meraviglia—the largest cruise ship set to visit Halifax in 2024. But even the Octantis, small as it may be, poses a weighty question to Halifax and the other ports it will visit: How much ocean pollution is the HRM willing to accept in the name of tourism dollars? And are the trade-offs—low-oxygen “dead zones,” scrubber water discharges, higher carbon dioxide levels—worth the financial gain in the long-term?

The Port of Halifax expects to see as many as 375,000 tourists in 2024. Those passengers will arrive on 204 cruise ship visits between Apr. 6 and Nov. 3. Even if those cruise ships sail at less than full capacity—and sometimes, the ships sail at over capacity—both figures represent an uptick from 2022 and 2023, when Halifax saw 234,000 and 301,000 passengers, respectively.

Cruise season represents big business for the HRM: According to the Halifax Port of Authority, which will oversee the arrival of every ship this year, the cruise industry accounted for roughly $136 million flowing into Halifax and the surrounding area in 2022. (The numbers haven’t been crunched for 2023.) That comes through money spent on tours, in pubs, restaurants, galleries and gift shops, and on ship supplies and provisions when the vessels are in port. And it’s an industry Halifax would like to see grow: A declassified municipal report from Feb. 2024 shows the HRM sees “potential for cruise facilities” in Dartmouth, too, as part of a “revitalized” waterfront.

The Port Authority says cruise ships represented about 1,100 jobs in 2022. For proprietors like Brian Titus, the president of Halifax Seaport-based Garrison Brewing Co., cruise ships represent thousands of new customers over the span of a season, allowing him to “more than double” his staff every summer.

click to enlarge Cruise season is back in Halifax—with newer anti-pollution rules. But how much has changed?
Martin Bauman / The Coast
Garrison Brewing Co. president Brian Titus says he's able to "more than double" his staff every summer because of business brought in from cruise ships.

“That makes me feel good, because it’s mostly students that come on for that time period,” he told The Coast in 2023, “and they need the money.”

But for all the money cruise ships represent to Halifax, the industry’s ripples are felt in other ways, too: Critics argue cruise ships are not only more carbon-polluting than any other standard form of travel, they’re also an active threat to our oceans and the many species within them. And while Canada has taken steps to address some of the industry’s pollutive effects, environmentalists say our country still lags behind its peers.

Ottawa makes anti-pollution measures mandatory

According to the math of environmental group NABU, a Germany-based non-profit dedicated to “climate protection and energy policy,” for every day a ship the size of Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Pearl or Holland America Line’s Volendam—both arriving in Halifax next weekend—is at sea, it will burn through “as much as 150 tonnes of fuel.” That, NABU adds, can release as much particulate matter (aerosols, smoke, exhaust fumes and the like) into the atmosphere and surrounding water as a million cars.

But for what’s visible above deck in the form of exhaust, another world of waste passes below deck—and largely unseen—in the form of wastewater and greywater dumping. When a ship is offshore, the water used in its toilets, sinks, showers, galleys, laundry machines and dishwashers, along with the poop, dirt, shampoo, detergents and kitchen waste gets dumped back into the ocean. And along with turning the water into “a bit of a toilet bowl,” as shipping campaigner Anna Barford told The Coast last spring, it can accelerate ocean acidification.

Last June, the federal government introduced new mandatory regulations in an attempt to rein some of that in. Canada’s transport minister, Omar Alghabra, announced that “effective immediately,” cruise ships would be barred from dumping greywater and treated sewage “within three nautical miles from shore where geographically possible across Canada.” Ottawa further added that ships would be required to treat greywater and wastewater “before it is discharged between three and twelve nautical miles from shore” when in non-Arctic waters. (Canada’s Arctic region has separate regulations under the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act.)

Those changes were backed by fisheries and oceans minister Joyce Murray, who added, “with the threat of climate change and ongoing human activities impacting oceans, protecting them now has never been more urgent.”

click to enlarge Cruise season is back in Halifax—with newer anti-pollution rules. But how much has changed?
Martin Bauman / The Coast
The 2,000-passenger Coral Princess, operated by Princess Cruises, visited Halifax in 2023.

But while the federal rule changes cracked down on greywater dumping, they didn’t address the largest source of pollution: Discharge from so-called “scrubbers,” which use ocean water to filter particulate matter and prevent it from polluting the air. While remarkably effective at lowering sulfur levels on ships’ decks and in port cities, scrubbers create a different problem by trapping those pollutants underwater. (Imagine “an exhaust tea” of heavy metals and cancer-causing chemicals, Barford says, and that’s what ship scrubbing systems produce.) Those pollutants account for about 90% of a ship’s discharge.

“They’ve taken an air pollution problem and turned it into a water pollution problem,” Barford told Local Journalism Initiative reporter Rochelle Baker last July.

Even with last June’s more stringent regulations, Canada’s laws governing ship pollution are more lax than those in the United States. California does not allow ships to operate scrubbers within 24 nautical miles of its coastline. Washington state’s Puget Sound has been a no-discharge zone for ship sewage since 2018. The same is true for all of New Hampshire’s coastal waters, much of Massachusetts and most of Connecticut.

What does that mean for Halifax?

Halifax could, if it wished, move to ban cruise ships entirely, as some cities have. Council could also take a phased approach. Last July, Amsterdam’s council banned cruise ships from its city centre in an effort to curb pollution and overtourism. Italy banned large cruise ships from visiting Venice in 2021, but still permits smaller ships. Key West, Florida’s council has opted to allow one cruise ship per day.

“Hate them or love them, but they do help the economy,” Coast reader Mary Walsh wrote last spring. “Local crafters get noticed and a chance to sell products. I think for the most part, it’s local people who have no business or who make no money from [the ships] that are the naysayers.”

click to enlarge Cruise season is back in Halifax—with newer anti-pollution rules. But how much has changed?
Photo: Martin Bauman / The Coast
The 1,430-passenger Zaandam cruise ship, seen in Halifax on May 4, 2023, was among the Halifax Seaport's most frequent vessel visitors last year.

Barford says she isn’t against cruise ships and the economy they support; she merely wants to see the industry adopt—and adhere to—more stringent environmental regulations. She has lobbied for Canada to ban scrubbers and require ships—as California does—to use low- or zero-emission fuels.

“We can bring in rules where we put in efficiency standards, and where we require ships to behave a certain way,” Barford told The Coast. “Because we know the Americans have. And we can see it in other jurisdictions.”

Martin Bauman

Martin Bauman, The Coast's News & Business Reporter, is an award-winning journalist and interviewer, whose work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Calgary Herald, Capital Daily, and Waterloo Region Record, among other places. In 2020, he was named one of five “emergent” nonfiction writers by the RBC Taylor Prize...
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