Oceana Makes Big Stink With Royal Caribbean

Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, the world's second largest in its business, will improve its sewage and wastewater practices after an 11-month campaign from Oceana Inc. to stop cruise pollution.

The effort from Oceana, a Washington environmental nonprofit that works to protect and restore oceans, used many offline tactics as well as pop-up online toilet banner ads on select sites.

The online ad in particular persuaded nearly 50,000 people to send e-mail letters to Royal Caribbean. In that letter, they pledged not to cruise with Royal Caribbean ships until the firm cleaned up. Such public pressure — 90,000 e-mail, fax and postcard letters from all media and tactics — resulted in the cruise line company agreeing to install advanced wastewater treatment technology fleet-wide within four years.

“The Internet is central to our advocacy efforts because it allows us to communicate our message on a broad scale and in ways that would be impossible using more traditional media,” Oceana communications manager Sam Haswell said. “It's also a very cost-efficient way to develop tremendous word-of-mouth on our issue.”

Oceana began its Stop Cruise Pollution campaign in July 2003. Offline, it used many tactics: flying an airplane banner that read “Got Sewage? Royal Caribbean Dumps Daily” over crowded beaches and cruise ships as they left port, beach cleanups and news conferences. Venues included ports like New York, Miami and Los Angeles. The nonprofit also held nationwide call-in days where people besieged Royal Caribbean headquarters with calls.

Online, Oceana hired @dvocacy Inc., an Internet-based political and issue-focused interactive agency. The Washington shop created a humorous Flash ad of a toilet-shaped cruise ship dirtying the seas with its discharges. The commode is shown floating, along with a flushing sound. A viral element helped more than 20 percent of the ad's viewers forward it to friends. The ad is up at www.advocacyinc.com/oceana/toilet_jan_12.html.

Another online tactic was a video game featuring a dolphin that catches cruise ship waste plunging to the sea floor. Created by Vanguard Communications, the online game generated thousands of visitors to www.oceana.org.

Royal Caribbean chairman Richard Fain sent Oceana CEO Andrew Sharpless a letter in May committing to install the new treatment technology on all company ships, including the Celebrity cruises.

“We also continue to pursue passage of legislation, both on the state and federal level, that would limit cruise waste and sewage dumping,” Haswell said.

Each vessel has ample potential to pollute. According to Oceana, one large cruise ship daily can generate and legally dump as much as 25,000 gallons of sewage and 250,000 gallons of wastewater into the ocean.

Wastewater can be dumped anywhere untreated, and raw sewage as close as three miles from shore. Anything beyond that needs only to be treated with antiquated, ineffective marine sanitation devices, Haswell said.

Research shows sewage in the ocean contributes to harmful algae blooms and red tides, beach closures and oxygen-depletion zones. These threats can decimate marine life and affect the quality of human life.

Oceana has marine scientists, economists and lawyers who seek policy outcomes that help stop the irreversible collapse of fish stocks, marine mammal populations and other sea life. It also has offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Juneau, AK, and in mid-Atlantic and New England states. Overseas, it has staff in Madrid, Spain, and Santiago, Chile. More than 170,000 members and online activists are part of Oceana.

The nonprofit is working on two other campaigns. One is to stop destructive bottom trawling — huge nets that rake the ocean floor indiscriminately. The other is to end dirty fishing — essentially an effort to set limits for bycatch, the non-targeted sea life caught in massive amounts by commercial fishermen and thrown overboard dead or dying.

As expected of environmental organizations and other staunch advocacy groups, Oceana is not above taking advantage of controversy. Part of Oceana's media buy for Stop Cruise Pollution included two paid ads on Google. One described Oceana's mission and linked to Oceana.org. The other focused on the campaign. Both ads cost a total $6 for the duration they were up on Google AdWords.

In February, Google removed the ads after only two days. The search engine took issue with the cruise pollution ad for “language that advocates against Royal Caribbean” and the general ad for linking to a site that pointed to another that used “language advocating against the cruise line industry and cruisers.”

Indignant at Google's decision, Oceana issued a news release. Hundreds of newspapers worldwide, CNN Headline News and local television news channels picked up on an Associated Press story born from the release. Online blogs and journals debated the propriety of companies like Google arbitrarily censoring messages of advocacy groups like Oceana.

“Incidentally, Yahoo ended up running the same ads that were rejected by Google,” Haswell said. “The Google controversy resulted in more than a thousand new members, or Wavemakers [as they are called], in less than a week, and a dramatic increase in Web traffic on our site.”

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