Without Ocean Rangers, Glacier Bay in Southeast Alaska is monitoring cruise ships on its own

people stand on the dock of a large boat as it approaches a glacier
Cruise ship approaches Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park. (National Park Service)

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Southeast Alaska started its own cruise ship monitoring program this July. Cruise companies are paying for independent inspectors to board ships unannounced and check on wastewater management, emissions, marine mammal protection and compliance documentation.

Glacier Bay used to rely on the state’s Ocean Ranger program for these inspections, but the program was defunded before the pandemic.

Park scientist Scott Gende said the Ocean Rangers were essential to the park’s tourism structure.

“We would not have an inspection program if the Ocean Ranger program didn’t exist,” he said. “We were really hopeful that the Ocean Ranger program would continue.”

Alaska voters started the Ocean Ranger program in 2006 to protect wildlife and waterways from pollution. Governor Mike Dunleavy defunded the program in 2019.

Rangers made sure the large cruise ships followed state and federal environmental rules, especially around the kind of wastewater discharged into Alaska waters. It was paid for through a per person passenger tax the state levied on cruise companies.

The program’s defunding put the park and cruise companies in a tight spot because they signed a decade-long contract that legally commits them to inspections.

“Glacier Bay has concessions contracts, which result in probably the highest standards in the world,” said park superintendent Philip Hooge. “And we work tightly in partnership, really good relationship, with the cruise industry, but we also need to have independent verification on all aspects of our contract.”

The park covers 3.3 million acres, and it’s considered one of the gems of Southeast Alaska. Coastal temperate rainforest there is punctuated by deep, glacier-carved fjords and snow-covered peaks. About 650,000 people visit the park each year and more than 95% of them arrive by cruise ship.

The National Park Service is charged with protecting the park’s resources while still making them available to the American public. They do that through a unique contract system with cruise companies. Cruise companies compete for 10-year contracts to sail the park’s waters. They commit to a number of extra environmental safeguards, like a zero wastewater discharge policy, and random, independent inspections to prove they’re in compliance.

The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation still does port inspections on cruise ships, but Gende says they don’t go far enough. The park needs inspectors that are on the ships while they’re at sail and who arrive on cruise ships unannounced for random inspections. Their independent contractor checks those boxes, but Gende says he hopes it’s a temporary solution.

“We’d be thrilled to death if the state would integrate that into their Ocean Ranger program and we can get some Ocean Rangers back on board. But until then, this is our approach, and we’re gonna continue forward with these third-party inspectors,” he said.

Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, and Seabourn have signed a contract with third party-inspectors. The park expects a contract between inspectors and Norwegian Cruise Line soon.

Correction: This article has been updated to clarify that the Ocean Rangers program still exists by statute but was defunded in 2019.

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