Invasive Species in Ship Ballast

Capt. Pat Nelson gazes about the cavernous, mud-slicked interior of the ballast tank deep in the bowels of the 1,000-foot cargo ship, Oglebay Norton.

“This thing holds more than a million gallons, and that’s just one tank,” Nelson says. “How are you supposed to sterilize this much water?”

The question is at the center of a debate that has turned the lowly ballast tank into one of the Great Lakes region’s hottest political battlegrounds. The issue: how to stem an invasion by ballast stowaways, such as the hated zebra mussel without sinking the shipping industry.

A Soupy Mixture

Ballast is a soupy mixture of water, sediment and seaweed whose weight keeps ships stable during voyages. But it’s also home to a vast array of aquatic organisms that end up being hauled thousands of miles and then released into new territories as ships dump ballast while taking on cargo in port.

Once in their new homes, the uninvited immigrants can multiply quickly and wage war on native species, gobbling up their food and stealing their habitat.

Among the most notorious are the parasitic sea lamprey, which decimated the native trout population by the mid-1900s, and the zebra mussel, which arrived in the late 1980s and did hundreds of millions in damage by clogging water pipes.

Governments around the world are trying to close their borders to unwanted biological travelers. But the sense of urgency is particularly strong in the Great Lakes, where nuisance aliens have drastically altered the world’s largest surface fresh water system.

“It’s an ecological disaster,” says Mark Coscarelli, an environmental specialist with Michigan’s Office of the Great Lakes.

“Exotic species are the No. 1 issue facing the lakes, the single largest threat,” says Ken Sikkema, chairman of the Michigan Senate’s environmental affairs committee.

An estimated 145 aquatic foreigners have taken up residence in the Great Lakes ecosystem since the early 1800s — many, though not all, brought by ballast. More are on the way, scientists warn.

Shipping companies say they have made good-faith efforts to flush out the pests. And the Coast Guard requires ocean freighters to dump their ballast and take on more water before entering the lakes via the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Critics say more is needed.

Sterilization a Problem

Bills proposed in the Michigan, Minnesota and New York legislatures would order shippers to sterilize ballast, using government-approved methods of killing every critter, before dumping it into waters under their jurisdiction. A similar bill is pending in the U.S. House, and the Ontario provincial legislature also is considering ballast legislation.

Possible ballast sterilization methods include heating water, chemical disinfectants, ultraviolet light, screens and filters. But no workable technology has been devised.

Shippers say the bills make unrealistic, costly demands that could scuttle the industry in the region. They acknowledge the problem exists and say they are progressing — slowly — toward a solution. But for now, they insist, there is no way to completely purge live exotics from ballast.

“We’ve been working for almost a decade. The technology simply does not exist,” says Ray Skelton, government affairs director for the Duluth, Minn., Seaway Port Authority.

Even if a successful program were found, shippers say, it could cripple them by requiring costly upgrades and fees not levied against trains, trucks or ships that visit only ocean ports.

“If the owner of a ship that operates on the Great Lakes has to install $2 million in filtration equipment while those that serve the port of Baltimore don’t, that’s a tremendous competitive disadvantage,” says Steve Fisher, executive director of the American Great Lakes Ports Association.

Shippers are particularly unhappy with the prospect of all eight U.S. states and the two Canadian provinces bordering on the lakes creating a regulatory monster by enacting separate ballast laws.

“What would the railroads do if every state had different requirements for smokestacks or track width?” Fisher says. He leads a coalition of 83 ports, labor unions and shipping companies and customers fighting the Michigan bill.

Georges Robichon, senior vice president of the Montreal shipping company Fednav Limited, says the industry might accept some kind of ballast regulation.

“But it needs to be on a regional basis,” he says. “Nothing else makes sense.”

Sikkema, sponsor of the Michigan bill that served as a model for the others, says he would gladly defer if the U.S. and Canadian governments approved a strong ballast policy. But he says they are moving too slowly.

Economic Woes

Skelton says if Sikkema’s bill is enacted as written, “it’s the end of maritime commerce” on Lakes Huron, Michigan and Superior, large sections of which are subject to Michigan law. That would have a serious ripple effect on the Midwestern economy, he says.

Much of the wheat grown in Minnesota and the Dakotas is shipped overseas via Duluth, the largest Great Lakes port, says Dave Torgerson, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers.

Costs would jump if ballast legislation disrupted Lake Superior shipping and wheat farmers had to find other means of reaching foreign markets, such as sending crops to the Gulf of Mexico by river barge or to Pacific ports by rail, Torgerson says.

Other industries are in the same boat, says John Jamian, director of the Detroit Port Authority. About 46,000 jobs on the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway are linked directly to shipping, Jamian says. Michigan automobile and furniture manufacturers depend on steel and heavy equipment transported by water.

“All of us in the business understand the problem … and we want to fix it, but don’t do it in a fashion that kills an entire industry,” he says.

Sikkema says his bill merely holds shippers to the same standard as other industries, which are prohibited from dumping potentially harmful substances into the lakes.

“Nobody’s going to put the shipping industry out of business,” he said. “They’re exaggerating and they know it.”

Still, he has agreed to make clear in his bill that shippers would have to use only methods that are “financially reasonable and technologically feasible.”

Sikkema plans to bring a revised draft before his committee for hearings and a vote this fall.

Tipping the Balance

Shippers are not the only people with a financial stake in the debate, say supporters of a crackdown. Predators have wreaked havoc on the $4.5 billion Great Lakes fishing industry.

Governments and businesses have spent perhaps $1 billion repairing and preventing zebra mussel damage to water pipelines, boat hulls, dock pilings and other surfaces, says researcher Charles O’Neill of the Sea Grant agency in New York.

To environmentalists, more is involved than money.

“We’ve already monkeyed with the ecosystem by introducing exotic species, to the point that it’s not recognizable from even 100 years ago,” says Wil Cwikel of the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council in Harbor Springs. “We need to protect the biodiversity and uniqueness that we still have.”

But to veteran sailors such as Nelson, captain of the Oglebay Norton, the ballast fight is very much a pocketbook issue.

Son of a freighter crewman, Nelson was raised just north of St. Clair, where his ship now unloads coal at a Detroit Edison power plant. At 47, he has sailed the Great Lakes for three decades and wonders how the controversy could affect the only way of life he knows.

“At a certain point you become golden handcuffed by age and wage,” he says. “There’s no way I could go on shore and earn as much as I do now.”