Agency to combat foreign species in
Coast Guard policy failed to block invasive creatures
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Originally published January 23rd, 2005
MINNEAPOLIS - The U.S. Coast Guard says it must find new
ways to keep foreign species out of the Great Lakes, conceding
that its regulation of transoceanic ships since 1993 hasn't
done the job.
In a little-noticed announcement in the Federal Register
this month, the Coast Guard confirmed what scientists
have been documenting for years: Invasive species can
be carried into the Great Lakes in the residual water
and mud at the bottom of ships' ballast water tanks. The
extent of the problem was detailed in a series of Star
Tribune reports in June.
Ballast tanks are used to balance and stabilize ships.
They are emptied and refilled depending upon how much
cargo a ship is carrying. Since 1993, the Coast Guard
has required ships from foreign ports to discharge ballast
water in mid-ocean and to replace it with salt water before
entering the St. Lawrence Seaway. The intent is to remove
or kill freshwater hitchhikers that might otherwise be
carried into the Great Lakes, where they could proliferate
and damage natural species.
But the regulations have a gaping loophole. Ships with
empty tanks - which represent about 80 percent of the
incoming vessels - have been exempt from federal inspections.
Scientists have found eggs, spores and other living things
in the residual water and muck in the bottom of those
tanks. The foreign species have been dumped into Great
Lakes ports when ships take on and release ballast water,
Coast Guard officials say that they are taking a fresh
look at the problem and that they are seeking public comments
on ways to kill or remove species that may linger in the
tanks' murky bottoms.
"We believe this is an important issue, and we're
committed to protecting the Great Lakes," said Brian
Patnaik, project manager of the Coast Guard's environmental
At least 179 foreign species have entered the Great Lakes
since the 1800s. About 40 percent have arrived since 1959,
mostly in ballast tanks. The invaders include zebra mussels
and such fish as round gobies and Eurasian ruffe, which
displace or out-eat native fish and mussels.
Jennifer Nalbone, habitat and biodiversity coordinator
for the environmental coalition Great Lakes United, said
the Coast Guard's action is welcome, but it should have
happened 12 years ago. "This is basically the first
time that the Coast Guard is recognizing that their program
needs an overhaul," she said.
Patnaik said the Coast Guard's new focus is a response
to public criticism and recent lakes research, some of
which was sponsored by the agency. When asked why action
wasn't taken earlier, Patnaik said the Coast Guard has
been busy completing other regulations and that it is
now able to concentrate on the ballast water problem.
Scientists who study the lakes recently reported that
the invading species are being discovered at a faster
pace. Their article, published in the October issue of
BioScience, predicted that, without better controls, invaders
will keep coming and spread in the Great Lakes "with
an associated loss of native biodiversity and an increase
in unpredicted ecological disruptions."
Among the species discovered since the 1993 regulations
is the fishhook water flea, which displaces native fish
food. Scientists have warned that other species from European
and Asian ports could invade the lakes, including the
killer shrimp, which devours food needed by fish.
In July, attorneys general from seven Great Lakes states
sued the Coast Guard over the problem. They argued that
species from foreign ports must be stopped because they
disrupt the ecology and cause billions of dollars in damage
to industries, sport fisheries and public utilities. They
said that the Coast Guard's exemption for most transoceanic
ships must end.