The last year and a half have not been good for the cruise industry. First came accusations of sexual harassment and rape being hushed up by Carnival Cruise Lines. Then came the revelation that some cruise ships regularly break environmental laws by dumping thousands of gallons of oil and hazardous chemicals on the high seas.
But bad press for the Love Boat fleet comes as a surprising boon to environmental groups. When Royal Caribbean Cruises was slapped with an $18 million fine in July (for conspiring to dump oily bilge waste in U.S. waters), $6 million was earmarked for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and the National Park Foundation. "We're going to put these settlement funds to use," promises Eric Hammerling, NFWF California program director. "It would be naive to think there won't be more dumping, even though the fines are supposed to be a disincentive."
It's a vicious cycle: Cruise ships dump, get caught, get fined, the money goes toward the cleanup, and then the whole process starts over again. As attorney general Janet Reno pointed out after the Justice Department's successful prosecution of Royal Caribbean on 21 felony counts in July, the sad irony is that they're polluting the very environment they depend on for their business. Indeed, according to Whitney Tilt, director of conservation for the NFWF, the disgorged sludge is contributing mightily to the destruction of coral reefs, as well as causing other ecological damage. "Royal Caribbean dumped in areas adjacent to coral reefs in the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and Biscayne Bay," he says. "This kind of dumping can have a horrible cumulative effect."
For now, the industry seems to have felt a horrible cumulative effect as well—in its wallet. Of course, not all companies are perpetrators, and red-faced cruise-line executives have stopped denying that abuses ever occurred. "The majority of these violations reflects a lapse in our enforcement efforts, not a lapse in our corporate conscience or our commitment to protecting the ocean," said Royal Caribbean president Jack Williams in a dutifully hand-wringing press release issued after the recent verdict. Translation, according to industry critics: Williams had no choice but to acknowledge his company's deeply ingrained dumping policies. "I remember witnessing it on a ship myself as a kid," says Rick Hind, legislative director of Greenpeace's Toxics Campaign. "The wind blew all the trash back onto the stewards who were throwing it. I laughed, and they chased me away." Hind isn't running anymore. "Any chance we get," he vows, "we're going to try to catch these guys."