Pacific Coast

Dishonorable Discharge: Protecting California Waters

California moves to end sewage and waste dumping from cruise ships off its expansive coastline.

No Dumping - A cruise ship docked in the Port of San Diego. Photo: Port of San Diego, Creative Commons

After several years of Ocean Conservancy advocacy, California is about to create the largest coastal no discharge zone in the country. The new rules will help solve a problem often unseen among swimmers and surfers along the coast, but greatly affecting the leaping dolphins and swirling schools of fish in more open waters.

There, cruise ships have been routinely dumping over 22 million gallons of treated sewage into California's state waters each year—enough to fill 440,000 bathtubs with a mix that can include fecal coliforms, food waste, oil, grease, detergents, pesticides and heavy metals. Long exempt from reasonable regulations, such pollution has been the standard for the cruise ship industry for decades.

But in California, these practices are about to change.

The EPA's establishment of a no discharge zone comes as California has made great strides in other ocean protection efforts such as reducing ocean trash and improving its statewide network of marine protected areas.

California's waters—no longer a dumping ground

A new federal rule signed on Friday, February 12 will create the largest coastal "No Discharge Zone" in the nation. The Environmental Protection Agency has approved the state's proposal to ban all sewage discharges from large ships into the offshore waters along California's 1,624-mile coastline. "Not only will this rule help protect important marine species, it also benefits the fishing industry, marine habitats, and millions of residents and tourists who visit California beaches each year," says U.S. EPA's Pacific Southwest Administrator Jared Blumenfeld.

The creation of the No Discharge Zone finalizes legislative efforts passed in 2005 by State Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), author of the Clean Coast Act, which prohibits all commercial ships from dumping hazardous waste, sewage sludge, oily bilge water, grey water and sewage into state waters. The Clean Coast Act was itself inspired by "Cruise Control", a comprehensive report on how cruise ships affect the ocean environment.

Ocean Conservancy issued the report in 2002. The Clean Coast Act required petitioning the federal government for a no discharge zone in order to enforce the bill's provisions. Simitian welcomed the zone's long-awaited establishment. "This is a great day for the California coast, which is far too precious a resource to be used as a dumping ground," he said.

Protecting sea life

The ban not only covers the state waters stretching three miles out from Oregon to Mexico, but also surrounds California’s major islands. The number of large ships traversing offshore continues to grow with dozens of cruise ships and nearly 2,000 cargo vessels making thousands of port calls in 2010 alone. By curbing the practice of dumping sewage into the state’s offshore waters, the no discharge zone will protect California residents and sea creatures alike.

“Modern cruise ships are essentially floating cities, disposing of huge volumes of pollution at sea, ” says Kaitilin Gaffney, Ocean Conservancy’s Pacific Program Director.

“California’s regulations ensure that as shipping traffic in our state continues to grow, it is not at the expense of a clean ocean.”

Diversity and beauty

  • California's offshore waters are home to some of the most diverse marine ecosystems in the world and include four national marine sanctuaries, a national monument, portions of six national parks and recreation areas, and more than 200 state marine protected areas.
  • Seventy-seven percent of the state's population lives at or near the coast, which sees over 150 million visitors each year.
  • The no discharge zone applies to ships over 300 gross tons including passenger, private, commercial, government or military vessels and is expected to be effective mid-March, 2012.

Travelers opt to visit California more than any other state in the nation, drawn to the unparalleled beauty and unsurpassed recreational opportunities of the coast. Commercial and sport fishermen depend on clean water to support coastal fisheries, and wildlife needs a healthy ocean to thrive.

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