A cruise ship leaves Helsinki Harbor. Vestman/Flickr

And the city of Helsinki is going one step further.

By all means visit our shores, but keep your filthy water to yourselves. That’s the message coming from the Baltic Sea this year, as the North European body of water becomes the first in the world to ban cruise ships from dumping waste water offshore. According to a decision announced by the International Maritime Organization this May, starting in 2019 all new ships entering the Baltic must either take their waste water away with them or pump it on land to be treated. In 2021 the rules will be extended to include older ships as well.

The timeframe still leaves the sea vulnerable in the interim. Currently, untreated waste water can be dumped 12 nautical miles (13.8 land miles) offshore and treated sewage just 3 nautical miles (3.5 land miles), which is why the Port of Helsinki announced sweeteners this week that will encourage visiting ships to stop dumping at sea now. Taken all together, they show the Baltic region taking a lead that other heavily frequented or vulnerable marine areas could well follow.

If the Baltic region is showing leadership here, it’s because it badly needs to. This year, the European Commission pronounced it “one of the most polluted seas in the world.” Cruise ships aren’t the key problem behind this of course. The Baltic’s waters have actually been most heavily blighted by two other factors. One is poor urban wastewater management, especially in the numerous cities along the sea’s Eastern and Southern coasts. The other is agricultural waste and fertilizer run-off. Combined, these two pollution sources fill the sea with nutrients that cause regular, vast algae blooms (already proving a problem this summer) that severely deplete the water’s oxygen levels. Exacerbating the issue is the Baltic’s shallowness (its average depth is around 180 feet) and the narrow outlet it has to the Atlantic from the Kattegat Sea dividing Denmark and Sweden.

The Baltic Sea Action Plan, introduced in 2007, has done much to help matters, improving waste water management in Saint Petersburg (the sea’s largest coastal city), the Baltic States and Poland, albeit not yet in the heavily polluting Russian city of Kaliningrad. But with algal blooms still commonplace, the region’s countries still need to attack pollution on all fronts, and even if they aren’t the main problem, cruise liners are nonetheless a major source of all sorts of filth. According to Friends of the Earth, a single week’s voyage for a large cruise ship creates an estimated 210,000 gallons of human sewage and one million gallons of grey water from showers, sinks, laundry and the like. Add all this together with extras such as bilge water mixed with oil, float the vessel discharging it all into vulnerable or heavily charted waters, and you have a veritable plague ship that risks contributing to a slug trail of eutrophication in which ever direction it turns its keel.

That’s why the city of Helsinki isn’t waiting until 2019 for the no-dump laws to kick in. It can’t really afford to. Over 236 ships will dock in the city’s harbor this summer, according to Finnish broadcaster YLE, and 12 large cruise liners will dock there within the next fortnight alone. In order to keep its waters relatively clear, the Port of Helsinki is offering a 20 percent discount to vessels that pump their waste on land to be treated. The uptake for this offer is likely to be all but unanimous, because ships that dock in the port must all pay the fee, whether they actually off-load waste there or not. Simply by taking advantage of a service they’ve already paid for, ships can cut their overheads. The offer should also get them used to using a service that will be mandatory for all ships after 2021.

Meanwhile, owners of some cruise ships, such as TUI Cruises, have been attempting to do their bit by reducing water consumption and adapting systems to ensure that less discharge of water into open seas is necessary. Taking a cruise may never become the most eco-friendly vacation option, but at least in the Baltic, the industry is being steered towards leaving far fewer problems in its wake.

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