Bell Street Pier 66 with a Norwegian Cruise Line Ship, 2018. (Port of Seattle)

“Is your port doing business with a dangerously unregulated industry?”

If you live in Seattle, a city that prides itself on protecting workers’ rights and prioritizing the health of the environment, your first reaction may be to say no. Unfortunately, as one of over 20 U.S. cities home to a cruise terminal, the answer is yes.

Cruise companies use the loophole of sailing their ships under the flags of foreign nations whose safety, environmental, and labor standards are minimal in order to avoid paying U.S federal taxes or adhering to labor laws and safety regulations. The result is cruise ship workers holding down 12-hour shifts for six or seven days a week while earning monthly salaries of $550 to $2,000 per month, according to a 2020 investigation published by Business Insider.

A 2021 report by Marine Pollution Bulletin, based on 200 research articles, found cruise ships to be “a major source of environmental pollution and degradation, with air, water, soil, fragile habitats and areas and wildlife affected.” Human harm is not limited to labor exploitation; the report also found the transmission of infectious diseases, like Covid-19, and injuries sustained during on the job accidents to be widespread problems in the cruise industry as well.

Seattle may currently provide harbor for cruise ships, but activists Seattle Cruise Control are hopeful a recent decision by the Port of Seattle to cancel plans for construction of a third cruise terminal at Terminal 46, near Pioneer Square in Downtown Seattle, may signify a new direction forward.

“Having canceled this ill-advised project, the Port of Seattle is now uniquely poised to lead the way to a new green economy with broadly shared local prosperity,” said Jordan Van Voast of Seattle Cruise Control in an email.

Now that cruise terminal plans have been cancelled, the Port has shared plans to use Terminal 46 as a redeveloped cargo port; however, Seattle Cruise Control are urging the commissioners to consider other possibilities, for example, using the terminal as a staging area for offshore wind turbine development, as was mentioned by Port Commissioner Ryan Calkins in the past.

With the cancellation of a third cruise terminal achieved, the organization wants the Port to commit to phasing out cruise ships from its waters. But doing so will require weaning the Port from what has historically been an important source of revenue for the Evergreen State.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Port reported that every time a cruise ship docked in Seattle more than $4 million went into the local economy and $14.5 million was collected in statewide taxes. All together those proceeds added up to a billion-dollar annual industry, according to those Port figures.

The impacts of phasing out cruise ships from Seattle would have larger impacts as well. Cruise ships represent an important source of income for Alaska, especially in the southeastern corner of the state where cities like Ketchikan, a city with a population of 8,500, pockets about $250 million annually from cruise visitors. In 2017, the state of Alaska took in about $2.8 billion in revenue from the cruise industry, and projections for 2020 were set to be even higher before the pandemic led to cancellation of the cruise season.

There is an argument to made, however, that even when taking into account all of that revenue, the social and environment cost inflicted by cruises remains too high, especially in the face of the climate crisis. Data shared by Seattle Cruise Control suggests that the cruise industry emits 1.9 million tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere during its six month season, about a third as much as is emitted by the entire city of Seattle in a whole year. To arrive at that number, the organization used data from the 2019 Alaskan cruise season and took in account both emissions from cruise and from the flights passengers took to arrive in Seattle.

The data showed that about 480,000 people flew into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to depart for their Alaskan cruises. But while flights represented approximately 763 thousand tons of greenhouse gas emissions, the lion’s share came from the cruise ships themselves, which emitted 1.1 million tons of greenhouse gases in 2019.

In the face of criticism backed up by mounting evidence, the cruise industry is taking some steps to improve its environmental footprint. Major industry players like Carnival have set the goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050, while smaller more boutique operations have set more aggressive targets. By purchasing wind and solar offsets and utilizing high tech equipment that allows for the creation of electricity from engine cooling water, Virgin Cruises claims to have achieved carbon neutrality for its fleet. But it remains to be seen if companies like Virgin will push the industry as a whole toward more sustainable practices, and it’s worth noting that Virgin continue to sail its ships under the flag of the Bahamas — a country known for lax labor rules. And some activists argue offsets are offsets don’t cut it.

In addition to phasing out cruises from the Port of Seattle, Seattle Cruise Control is calling for Port Commissioners to go a step further. The organization wants the Port of Seattle to assume a statewide leadership role and work with the legislature to redefine the mission of ports in Washington.

“The original [port] authorizing legislation — over a century old — was created in a time before we understood the importance of environmental justice, the vulnerability of Salish Sea ecosystems, and the existential threat of the global climate catastrophe,” Van Voast said. “Revising the authorizing legislation to include broader goals for economic and environmental justice, pollution reduction, and ecosystem protection, is long overdue.”

The Port Commission will be holding their next meeting on January 25th. Seattle Cruise Control believes years of public testimony against cruise ships contributed to the decision to cancel the third cruise ship terminal, and encourages people to continue to testify in favor of phasing out cruise ships and assume a leadership role in encouraging socially and environmentally sustainable practices. The organization also continues to recruit volunteers for its #CruiseFreeSalishSea campaign.

Corrections (1/23/2022): This article was corrected to reflect that an approximately 763 thousand, not million, tons of greenhouse gas emissions resulted from flights to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport from cruise ship passengers.

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Natalie Bicknell Argerious (she/her) is Managing Editor at The Urbanist. A passionate urban explorer since childhood, she loves learning how to make cities more inclusive, vibrant, and environmentally resilient. You can often find her wandering around Seattle's Central District and Capitol Hill with her dogs and cat. Email her at natalie [at] theurbanist [dot] org.