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New WWF study finds untreated grey water from ships threatens arctic ecosystem

Harmful dumping in Canadian Arctic to double by 2035 according to environmental organization

The amount of untreated grey water dumped in Canadian Arctic waters is projected to double by 2035, if left unregulated, this new report commissioned by World Wildlife Fund Canada shows. As climate change makes the frozen region more accessible, grey water from vessels' galleys, showers and laundry is being released in increasing amounts into the fragile Arctic marine ecosystem, which is home to whales, walrus, seabirds, fish and other marine organisms. 

Current "hot spots" of grey-water dumping in the Arctic intersect with important whale habitats, such as calving areas and migration routes, as well as areas of high concentrations of Arctic char and sensitive benthic habitats. (See attached map.) Contamination of fish and shellfish threatens food security in northern communities. 

Although the impacts of grey water are similar to sewage, ships passing through Arctic waters in Canada are not required to adhere to any specific regulations for grey water and ships are not monitored for dumping this harmful waste into the sea. Transport Canada rules for grey water are much more stringent for waters below the 60th parallel. 

Hans Lennie, secretary-treasurer of the Inuvialuit Game Council, said: "Northern communities rely on resupply ships and many communities are happy to see tourism growing responsibly in the Arctic. However, communities in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region rely on the ocean for food. Untreated grey water can contaminate shellfish and could create toxic algae blooms that have the potential to jeopardize our food security. As shipping grows in the Arctic, it's important that regulations are changed to stop the dumping of grey water into the ocean."    

Melissa Nacke, specialist for arctic shipping and marine conservation at WWF-Canada, said:  "Regulations governing grey water disposal in the Arctic are overdue for an overhaul. WWF-Canada's report clearly shows that traffic is increasing and the rate of untreated grey water disposal in the Arctic environment will rise rapidly over the next two decades. Grey water can have many harmful impacts on the ocean, including introducing invasive species, metals, bacteria and microplastics. It doesn't make any sense that the fragile Canadian Arctic environment receives less regulation and protection than southern waters and neighbouring Alaska, and we want that to change." 

Vessel grey water comes from showers, baths, laundry, dishwasher and galley wastewater. It contains nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphorus), oil and grease, detergent and soap residue, metals (such as copper, lead and mercury), bacteria, pathogens, hair, organic matter including food particles, suspended solids, bleach and pesticide residues. 

Potential environmental impacts of grey water include shellfish contamination, algal blooms, lowered oxygen levels in the ocean and introduction of microplastics.  Passenger vessels, such as cruise ships, produce about 250 litres per day per person; cargo vessels produce less, about 125 litres per day per person. 

Prepared by Vard Marine Inc., the study used for the above findings builds on a previous, similar greywater analysis from 2015. This 2018 report presents a baseline for waste in the region in 2016 and provides projections for the quantities, types and areas of grey water concentration in the Canadian Arctic in 2025 and 2035. 

By 2035, tourism will be the biggest source of grey water dumping, according to the report.  Even a small increase in the number of passenger ships can have a big impact on the amount of grey water being dumped: The report shows that, due to the large number of passengers on cruise ships and their higher water use per person, tourism is projected to generate the most grey water by 2035, especially in the Northwest Passage.  Ships used for mining exports and fishing spend much more time in the Arctic, so even though they have fewer people onboard and lower levels of water use, they are also large contributors. 
The report also points to various grey-water treatment options that could be used on ships to eliminate environmentally harmful substances.  

 WWF-Canada creates solutions to the environmental challenges that matter most for Canadians. We work in places that are unique and ecologically important, so that nature, wildlife and people thrive together. Because we are all wildlife. For more information, visit 

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