For decades, people on the East End worried about the day that cruise ships arrived in local waters. That may come to pass next year in Sag Harbor, if a cruise operator succeeds in gaining access to the waterfront. American Cruise Lines would add Sag Harbor to several of its choices, on one itinerary, between stops in Old Saybrook, Conn., and Port Jefferson. Generally, the trips would be aboard 90 and 100-guest ships, but one scheduled already for next September would be on a 170-guest five-decker. Allowing cruises like these in East End waters would be a mistake if only on the theory that there is enough already going on here during the high season. But there is plenty more that makes them a bad idea.
The Villages of Sag Harbor and North Haven specifically suffer from downright terrible traffic, much of it caused by the hodgepodge of streets and crosswalks near Long Wharf. Adding a hundred or more people on foot in large slugs of arrivals would make the present chaos unsustainable. Sag Harbor officials would have to act quickly to get at least pedestrian crossing signals installed if the cruise line’s plan comes to pass.
On the water, the additional boat traffic would be an issue, too. Though the cruise line highlights what it says is its commitment to a “green” fleet, engine emissions would not be zero and would contribute to greenhouse gases and incrementally lower air quality locally. The company works hard to reduce its carbon footprint, it says, thereby acknowledging that it has one. Though local governments would be unable to shut down the fossil-fuel-powered cruise industry as a whole, they could and should take a stand against adding to the climate crisis by excluding large ships from their ports.
For commercial and recreational users, Northwest Harbor and Sag Harbor Bay can seem congested already. Launches ferrying passengers to and from shore would only add to the sense of disorder. In warm weather cruise guests might be encouraged to have a swim — contributing to the amount of nitrogen in the estuary at a time when nitrogen is water-quality enemy number one, with millions being spent to limit it from sources on land. (Urine is a significant contributor.)
Cruise ships are increasingly unwelcome elsewhere. Amsterdam plans to relocate its passenger-ship terminal this year to cut down on the number of tourists in the city, as well as air pollution. Cruise ships are no longer permitted in Venice. In this country, Key West voters pressured local officials for a cruise ship ban several years ago, though it was overturned by industry-friendly Gov. Ron DeSantis in short order.
All is not well in our waters already. Harmful algae blooms have been frequent in the overstressed Peconic Estuary, including around Sag Harbor. Save the Sound, an environmental organization based in Connecticut, is concerned about impairments, especially at the Sound’s western end. More locally, fecal bacteria counts raise concerns — notably at Sag Harbor’s Windmill Beach.
Though the number of passengers American Cruise Lines says it would bring ashore would be low compared to the giant liners in major ports, there would be little to stop another company from bringing in its own ships. Our region is at a breaking point in many aspects of the environment and daily life. Nothing should be overlooked in our attempts to keep it from getting worse.