Few ships checked for invasive species
By Tom Meersman
Published June 14, 2004
MASSENA, N.Y. -- Coast Guard Petty Officer Ward Ordway
boarded a foreign ship in the St. Lawrence Seaway, ready
to look into its dark, dank bowels for stowaways. Not
human troublemakers, but aquatic creatures that could
escape the murky depths of ballast water tanks and invade
the Great Lakes.
Ordway and an assistant tested the stored water to make
sure it was salty enough to kill any pests carried from
foreign ports. Tests like this are the U.S. government's
main bulwark against alien species.
Yet a gaping hole exists in this line of defense.
Invading creatures from abroad still can reach the Great
Lakes -- on oceangoing ships that don't get tested.
The Coast Guard's 11-year-old ballast-monitoring program
exempts from testing three out of four vessels heading
into the lakes from ports around the world.
These untested ships -- nearly 3,500 since 1995 -- are
loaded with cargo, rather than ballast water. In theory,
their nearly empty ballast tanks shouldn't be teeming
with foreign creatures.
But they are, scientists have discovered. Even ships
with nearly empty ballast tanks can carry millions of
tiny invaders in residual water and mud that can end up
dumped into Great Lakes ports.
Once established in the world's largest freshwater lake
chain, an invader like the European round goby can become
a permanent resident, out-eating, out-reproducing and
overpowering native species.
Two-thirds of the 79 non-native species discovered in
the lakes since the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959
almost certainly arrived in ballast tanks, according to
recent U.S. and Canadian research analyzed by the Star
Since the testing program began in 1993, 14 invaders
from Europe and elsewhere have been discovered in the
lakes. It's impossible to say whether they slipped through
-- or had arrived before the program began.
Coast Guard officials defend their program and say that
it is probably stopping some invaders, even though there's
little evidence to prove it.
One reason that tiny creatures from abroad continue
to be discovered is that scientists are looking harder
for them, said Lt. Cmdr. Kathy Moore, chief of the Coast
Guard's environmental standards division. Researchers
may be finding invaders that have lived in the lakes for
years and were not noticed until their populations increased,
Along for a ride
Over the past four decades, the international shipping
trade has been a boon to ports like Duluth. But the incoming
vessels brought unwanted passengers from Europe and Central
Asia. They included the zebra mussel, round goby, fishhook
water flea and Eurasian ruffe. Even a few plants took
Concern about the invaders prompted Congress in 1990
to order the Coast Guard to begin a testing program in
the Great Lakes. The rules adopted three years later are
more stringent than those for most other U.S. ports.
If a ship heading toward the seaway has water in its
ballast tanks, its captain is required to exchange the
water on the open sea. In theory, the saltwater will wash
out or kill the organisms picked up in foreign ports before
they can be carried into the Great Lakes.
Then these water-laden ships are tested by Coast Guard
officers like Ordway as they enter the seaway. On a foggy
day last November, he boarded a ship called the Yick Hua
in Massena, N.Y., the location of the first lock in U.S.
Nearly two football fields long, the Yick Hua looks like
many of the giant cargo vessels that ply the Great Lakes,
often destined for Duluth. Its 22 ballast tanks hold about
2 million gallons of water.
As the Yick Hua slowly covered the 3½ miles between
two locks, Ordway and another officer determined that
its tanks held salty water.
That meant the ship passed, like almost every vessel
To critics of the program, such tests mean nothing.
One of the doubters is Eric Reeves, a retired Coast Guard
commander who was responsible for the ballast-monitoring
program in the Great Lakes from 1993 to 1998. He now says
the inspection program can't prevent new invaders.
Reeves lost faith in saltwater as a defense against invaders
after he studied scientific reports on aquatic species.
Reeves said he discovered that some organisms from foreign
ports can tolerate salinity and are not killed by the
ocean water. And he learned that invaders were carried
in the slop and sludge of ships that were exempt from
inspections. "I realized that we really didn't have
a program designed to solve the problem," he said.
Moore, of the Coast Guard, acknowledged that the program
is not perfect, especially for hardy invaders and those
that burrow into the mud at the bottom of ballast tanks.
"If they're embedded in sediments, they're not something
necessarily that can be easily flushed out," she
A dirty job
For scientists, it was a dirty job to test whether millions
of tiny marine animals can get into the lakes, despite
the Coast Guard's program to prevent it.
In late 2000, researchers from the Great Lakes Institute
for Environmental Research in Windsor, Ontario, began
crawling into the empty ballast tanks to see what lived
there. Over more than 2½ years, scientists explored
69 tanks in 39 oceangoing ships moving through the lakes.
They zeroed in on vessels with full cargoes and empty
ballast tanks that were exempt from the Coast Guard's
Dressed in full-body protective suits with helmets, boots
and gloves, and outfitted with gas "badges"
with alarms to detect hazardous vapors, they descended
thin metal ladders to the very bottom of the ships. There,
in stooped positions, they used scoops and turkey basters
to take samples of sediment and slop. The research team
learned that a typical bulk carrier held about 15,000
gallons of bottom water that pumps could not remove and
about 22,000 pounds of sediment in its "empty"
Almost every sample collected by the scientists contained
live animals, eggs, cysts or spores, ranging from tiny
mollusks, water fleas and insect larvae to various wormlike
species, said Hugh MacIsaac, an invasion biology expert
at the institute. The researchers conducted other tests
that showed many of these live and dormant creatures could
survive and reproduce.
The findings carry dire implications for the Great Lakes.
As ships' muck is stirred up and discharged in U.S. and
Canadian ports, these alien stowaways suddenly can be
released into a new home.
For several years, the Coast Guard has been considering
whether stricter ballast-water regulations are needed
on the Great Lakes.
Lake scientists generally support the idea. Shippers
worry that new regulations might make their business less
Anjuna Langevin, director of navigation and enforcement
for the Shipping Federation of Canada, an industry group,
said that a sudden change in ballast-water restrictions
in the Great Lakes could put the region at a competitive
disadvantage and tempt ship owners to move elsewhere.
Langevin said that technology to remove invaders from
ballast water is unproven and likely would cost at least
$1 million per ship. Experimental methods include filtration,
exposure to intense ultraviolet light, oxygen removal
and chemical treatment.
Ship owners also say that government must first set a
goal for how many creatures must be killed or removed
from ballast water and sludge. At a congressional hearing
in March, Coast Guard officials did not say when such
a standard would be adopted.
Kathy Metcalf, maritime affairs director for the Chamber
of Shipping of America, another industry group, said that
once the government sets a treatment standard, shippers
will need time to adapt the experimental technology to
She estimated that it could require 15 or 20 years to
develop and implement "economical and effective"
ways to clean ballast water, but she said the problem
will be solved eventually.
"There's going to be some components of the industry
that you're going to have to drag screaming and kicking
to the table, but for the most part the industry is trying
to take a proactive approach on this," she said.
Salties and lakers
Not everyone agrees the problem is so complicated.
Reeves, the retired Coast Guard official, said that the
industry has been saying the same things about high costs
and unproven technology since the 1980s, and that neither
ship owners nor the government has made a serious attempt
to resolve the issue.
"This is not a problem in dealing with highly complicated
chemistry or industrial processes or something,"
Reeves said. "This is water, and it's water in ships."
The largest risk comes from relatively few ships. Vessels
from abroad, known as "salties," make about
500 trips into the Great Lakes each year, according to
the Coast Guard. By contrast, most shipping traffic is
from "lakers" -- vessels that move only within
the Great Lakes and make thousands of shorter trips each
If a solution is found for the Great Lakes, it might
benefit other U.S. waters, which offer invaders easy access.
Chesapeake Bay contains at least 160 non-native species,
for example, and the San Francisco estuary is home to
more than 200 invaders. There are no locks to separate
these waters from the oceans.
After more than a decade of study, the International
Maritime Organization, a U.N. agency, proposed worldwide
standards earlier this year that would affect existing
ships beginning in 2014.
But the treaty contains provisions that could postpone
the deadlines. It will also take years to ratify. In the
meantime, biologists say, more invading creatures are
certain to enter the Great Lakes.
Dennis Schornack, U.S. chairman of the International
Joint Commission, a group that deals with U.S.-Canadian
boundary issues, believes that valuable time is being
"We're just constantly changing this ecology to
the point where pretty soon we're going to have invasive
species outnumbering natives," he said.