Marine Pollution

Progress Made to Reduce Marine Pollution by Cruise Ships, but Important Issues Remain Gao ID: RCED-00-48 February 28, 2000

Cargo ships, tankers, cruise ships, and other commercial vessels registered, or ?flagged,? in foreign countries have been involved in almost 2,400 confirmed cases of illegally discharging oil, garbage, and other harmful substances into U.S. coastal waters between 1993 and 1998. Cruise ships accounted for about four percent of all confirmed cases of illegal discharges by commercial foreign-flagged ships during that time. This report answers the following questions: What are the nature and the extent of reported illegal discharge cases for foreign-flagged cruise ships from 1993 through 1998? What efforts have relevant federal agencies made to prevent, detect, investigate, and prosecute illegal discharges from foreign-flagged cruise ships? What steps have cruise ship companies taken to prevent future illegal discharges? What are the views of relevant federal agencies and third-party interest groups on the steps that cruise ship companies have taken, and what issues do they believe require further attention?

GAO noted that: (1) federal data indicate foreign-flagged cruise ships were involved in 87 confirmed illegal discharge cases in U.S. waters from 1993 through 1998; (2) overall, the number of confirmed illegal discharge cases by cruise ships in U.S. waters generally declined during this period; (3) oil or related chemicals were discharged in 81 cases and 6 cases involved discharges of garbage or plastic; (4) GAO determined that about three-fourths of these cases were accidental, while the remainder were either intentional or their cause could not be determined; (5) the Coast Guard, the Department of Justice, and other agencies undertake a variety of efforts to prevent, detect, investigate, or prosecute illegal marine discharges by foreign-flagged cruise ships; (6) the Coast Guard inspects ships in port, watches them as part of aircraft surveillance in the open sea, investigates reported incidents and adjudicates cases under its civil penalty procedures; (7) however, the Coast Guard's ability to detect and resolve violations is constrained by the narrow scope of its routine inspections, a significant reduction in aircraft surveillance for marine pollution purposes, and a breakdown of the process for identifying and resolving alleged violations referred to flag states; (8) twelve cruise ship companies that have been involved in nonaccidental pollution cases have implemented new or updated environmental plans designed to enhance ship safety and prevent pollution; (9) the plans, which were prepared pursuant to new international standards or were mandated by U.S. district courts after the companies pled guilty to pollution violations, call for such steps as regular third-party verification of ships' compliance with environmental procedures; (10) officials from the Coast Guard, the Department of Justice, and the Center for Marine Conservation said that cruise ship companies were making progress toward changing a maritime culture that once permitted discharges of garbage and oil from ships before international standards and U.S. laws to control such discharges were adopted; (11) however, cruise ship companies must demonstrate a sustained commitment to eliminate illegal discharges at sea; and (12) some officials expressed concern about the large volume of wastewater from sinks, showers, drains, and sewage systems that cruise ships legally discharge at sea and the possible effects of these discharges on sensitive marine life.


Our recommendations from this work are listed below with a Contact for more information. Status will change from "In process" to "Open," "Closed - implemented," or "Closed - not implemented" based on our follow up work.

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