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Great Lakes Article:

Agency to combat foreign species in Great Lakes
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, scientists say.

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 standards division.

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.




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