Cruise ships are returning to Portland this year, with questions in tow about their economic and environmental impact and importance.
The start of the first full season since 2019 began April 23, when the Ocean Navigator, a small ship with a capacity of about 300 guests, docked at Ocean Gateway. Arrivals will continue through the summer and fall, with the largest ships beginning to call in mid-August, when the Enchantment of the Seas, with more than 2,200 passengers, is expected to make port.
Portland is expecting more than 90 cruise ships this year as the industry returns to pre-pandemic numbers, with more than 40 after Aug. 14 with capacities between 2,000 and 4,000 guests.
For some, the ships are a positive part of Portland’s tourism economy; for others, their impact on the environment outweighs the economic benefits.
City Hall spokesperson Jessica Grondin said cruise ship operations from an environmental perspective will be discussed in a Sustainability and Transportation Committee meeting on May 11.
Concerns over the environmental impact of the vessels aren’t new. When cruise ship arrivals began increasing 20 years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved the state’s application to make Casco Bay a “no-discharge zone,” barring all ships from dumping sewage into the bay or the harbor.
In Bar Harbor, where tourism is even more dependent on cruise ships than in Portland, wastewater discharge has been an issue and was part of a water quality study done at MDI Biological Laboratory in Salisbury Cove.
A small cruise ship, Independence, was found to be visibly discharging wastewater in that area in 2010 and 2011. Now referred to as American Independence, the American Cruise Lines vessel is scheduled to visit Portland several times this season starting May 27.
Although Portland has the no-discharge zone to protect nearby waters, questions about air pollution from cruise ships remain – and there isn’t a lot of data on that.
The EPA has said a cruise ship docked for a day can emit as much exhaust as more than 30,000 idling tractor-trailers. The average cruise ship docked in Portland harbor idles for about six to 10 hours, Grondin said.
Ivy Frignoca, the baykeeper for Friends of Casco Bay, said her organization feels confident about the no-discharge zone. “But what’s unknown,” Frignoca said, “is the localized effect of air pollution, and how effective scrubbers are at removing air pollution.”
The scrubbers, also known as exhaust gas cleaning systems, are a part of the Cruise Line International Association’s sustainability efforts. The systems strip sulfur and particulate matter (the greatest contributing factors to visible haze) from ship exhaust.
Sarah Flink, executive director of CruiseMaine, said cruise ships must comply with international and domestic regulations from regulatory bodies like the U.S. Coast Guard. In addition, the entire east coast is an emissions control area, she said, which means ships are required to use ultra-low sulfur fuel.
Flink said the Maine Department of Environmental Protection has air-quality monitoring stations along the coast that have not detected significant impacts from cruise ships in port.
“All this is not to say we shouldn’t continue to monitor and to seek ways to decarbonize all aspects of cruise visitation,” she said. “There is always room for improvement, and it is something (ports, tour operators, and cruise lines) have top of mind.”
Complaints in 2018 about haze attributed to cruise ships prompted the EPA’s Bureau of Air Quality to update a previous study published in 2005.
The study was republished in January 2020 but was only based on data from cargo ships using Maine harbors because there weren’t the resources to include vessels such as cruise ships. It indicated that if cargo ship engines were on land, they are large enough to be considered a major source of air emissions, and would require serious emission controls from land-based regulations.
“This combined with the potential growth in cargo and cruise ship traffic and the need to address regional haze prevents the Department from disregarding marine vessels as a potentially important air emissions source,” the report concluded.
Bar Harbor’s cruise and tourism season kicked off in mid-April with two visits from the Norwegian Pearl, a massive cruise ship with more than 6,000 passengers.
Eben Salvatore, of Ocean Properties, said the arrival of the first ship “marks when the town comes to life.” It also keeps tourists coming beyond the typical summer season, well into September and October, he said.
A University of Maine study of the economic impact of Bar Harbor cruise visitors in 2016 showed the average respondent spent about $108 during their visit. In Portland, Grondin said, cruise visitors spend about $70 per person.
But even with the town’s dependence on the industry, many in Bar Harbor are unhappy about the burgeoning number of cruise ships.
Charles Sidman, a 40-year Bar Harbor resident, said the last year without cruise ships “proved a point:” The town doesn’t need the benefit that cruise ships bring to the economy. He said that the hordes of tourists from cruises drive away other people who don’t want to visit on a cruise ship day.
He said the Town Council has discussed the issue for years, but they’ve been “absolutely paralyzed,” which has led Sidman and others to start a petition to reduce foot traffic from cruise ships.
Signatures were turned in on April 28, with hundreds more than the necessary 300. The proposal would institute a limit on passengers and crew that can disembark from a cruise ship on any given day to 1,000 people.
“The energy and support for eliminating these unwelcome visitors is astonishing,” Sidman said. “We have questionable authority to regulate what happens on the water, but for damn sure we can regulate what happens on land in our town.”
He referenced a report requested by the town in 2021 that showed that across three different questions about whether cruise ships had a positive or negative impact, more than half of respondents answered that they had a negative impact – they felt cruise ship tourism detracts from Bar Harbor’s image and reduces the quality of life.
Salvatore argued that the slight majority wasn’t enough to warrant any drastic changes to the cruise scene in Bar Harbor. Instead, he noted changes that have been made to town processes, like changing the ships’ primary anchorage and making efforts to reduce bus idling (which he said might not be noticeable until fall).
The pushback in Bar Harbor has been building slowly over the years, and if significant changes come soon, cruise lines may have to look elsewhere for visits.
It could mean a greater presence in Portland, with even more questions about economic and environmental impact. The 2023 cruise ship schedule is already in place, with large, 2,000-passenger vessels scheduled to arrive not in mid-August, but in mid-May.