Oceangoing travelers for the first time can see what crimes are being reported aboard ships operating in U.S. ports — and the numbers compared with last year could make some of them seasick.
The number of reported sexual assaults on cruise ships jumped 550 percent in the first six months of 2016, going to 39 from six in 2015.
Overall, reported crimes on ships jumped 408 percent to 61 from 12.
The dramatic increase doesn’t mean cruise ships are more dangerous or violent than they were last year. But now, the public has access to reports of on-board crimes compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation that were not available in years past.
“The disclosure of crimes, and the FBI follow-up, are the most significant things we’ve accomplished,” said retired Phoenix businessman Kendall Carver, founder and chairman of the International Cruise Victims Association, which has been fighting for a decade for passenger safety.
“It means you can finally see what crimes are occurring on these ships … We can finally start getting valid numbers.”
Legislation passed in 2014 required public disclosure of all serious crimes reported by cruise ships. In addition, the Federal Bureau of Investigation will adopt a system to put victims of crimes in contact with a federal agent while they are still aboard the ship.
“If you go back three years ago, when we raised the question with the FBI: ‘What are you going to do if someone is raped on the high seas?’ The answer was, ‘Nothing,’ ” Carver said. “Now they are doing something.”
Cruise industry representatives say that taking a cruise is safe and that a person is far more likely to be a victim of crime at home than aboard a ship. The Cruise Lines International Association, the largest cruise-line trade organization, said this week the crime statistics have been available to the public for years.
“There is nothing new here. This information has long been available to the public and voluntarily provided by cruise lines,” public affairs director Elinore Boeke said in an email. “CLIA Cruise Line Members have publicly posted on their websites all allegations of serious crime since 2013. That information shows definitively that allegations of serious crimes on cruise ships are rare and a fraction of corresponding crime rates on land.”
Cutting confusion and inconsistencies
Cruise crime statistics generally have not been easy for people to access, often with different numbers posted by different sources. In fact, federal laws in the past have been used to limit crime data from being made public.
That’s why the numbers this year jumped when the new reporting standards went into effect.
Tracking crimes aboard ships previously was a Byzantine exercise, with cruise lines, the U.S. Coast Guard and the FBI all reporting different numbers.
“If you go back three years ago, when we raised the question with the FBI: ‘What are you going to do if someone is raped on the high seas?’ The answer was, ‘Nothing.’ Now they are doing something.”
Consumers needed to check the websites of each company to get a picture of what kind of crimes occurred aboard which ships, and even then the numbers weren’t clear.
For example, FBI records obtained by the Cruise Victims Association under the Freedom of Information Act showed 563 crimes were reported aboard cruise ships in 2011.
Those included 11 deaths, 28 rapes, 57 sexual assaults, 64 sexual contacts and other sex offenses, 253 assaults, 126 thefts, 16 thefts of more than $10,000 and eight people going overboard.
Six cruise lines in 2011 reported on their websites 102 crimes, including: five deaths, 34 rapes, 29 sexual assaults, 17 assaults, 13 thefts of more than $10,000 and four people overboard.
Carnival Corp., which operates the world’s biggest cruise lines, combined reporting for four of its companies under one name, so consumers could not identify the individual cruise line on which the reported crimes occurred.
The FBI reports showed 177 of the 563 crimes in 2011 occurred on board a Carnival Corp. ship. Carnival reported on its websites a total of 47 crimes.
The new Department of Transportation data breaks down alleged crimes reported on nine different cruise lines: Carnival, Celebration, Celebrity, Disney, Holland America, Mediterranean Shipping, Norwegian, Princess and Royal Caribbean. The information is not broken down by ship.
Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., who has sponsored cruise-safety legislation, said transparency is a critical step in addressing crimes on the high seas and bringing justice to victims.
“I have advocated for this type of reporting for years, because people deserve to have access to information that impacts the safety of themselves and their families,” she said in a statement. “I will continue to push for legislation in Congress to expand cruise passenger safety laws, so that we can ensure passengers are given as much protection as possible.”
“The disclosure of crimes, and the FBI follow-up, are the most significant things we’ve accomplished. It means you can finally see what crimes are occurring on these ships … We can finally start getting valid numbers.”
— Kendall Carver
Matsui introduced additional cruise ship safety provisions in Congress this year as part of House Resolution 3142, the Cruise Passenger Protection Act. The bill would impose a four-hour time limit on cruise ships to report crimes to the FBI.
It also would allow victims access to on-board video surveillance and create a minimum time limit for retention of surveillance records.
The bill would impose new medical standards, requiring ships to have a trained physician and medical staff aboard and, in the case of death, allows the victim’s family to request the deceased be returned to the United States.
Federal legislation in 2010 was supposed to provide the public with records of all crimes aboard cruise ships. Deaths, sexual assaults, thefts and missing-person reports would have been readily available to the public via a U.S. Coast Guard website.
But slight wording changes in the law that weren’t discovered until 2012 rendered crime-reporting provisions useless. The Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act provided less, not more, information about crimes on passenger ships operating out of U.S. ports.
Language added before its passage altered the bill so that only crimes “no longer under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation” were reported on the website. An Arizona Republic investigation in 2012 revealed the language was altered at the request of the FBI and the Coast Guard.
A cause close to the heart
Carver, whose daughter vanished under mysterious circumstances from a 2004 Alaska cruise, has dedicated his life to holding the cruise-line industry more accountable for passenger safety. The former president of a New York insurance company, Carver said his research showed that cruise lines operated almost without regulation in the United States, especially when it came to crime.
“The cruise lines love to say they are highly regulated by the (International Maritime Organization),” he said. “They are not. The IMO does not police, it does not regulate. It leaves regulation to flag countries … those are a joke.”
The IMO is a United Nations agency charged with safety and security of shipping and the prevention of pollution by ships.
“Flag countries” refers to countries where cruise ships are registered. Many ships are registered in the Bahamas, Panama, Bermuda, Italy, Malta and the Netherlands.
Carver brought victims of shipboard crime and their families together to take on the multibillion-dollar cruise-line industry and their lobbyists with little more than personal anecdotes of loss and violence.
The International Cruise Victims Association, which is staffed by volunteers and operates on donations, now has members in 35 countries and is pushing for increased passenger safety in Europe and Australia.
“I could never have anticipated this when we started out 10 years ago,” Carver said, invoking the name of his missing daughter, Merrian. “There’s a force behind this other than myself.”