Rules urged to cut impact of ballast
water on sea life
By Neil Santaniello
Knight Ridder Tribune
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - It adds weight, and balance,
to ships riding bumpy seas.
But once it is dumped out, that stabilizing force held
inside their hulls - ballast water - can knock native
marine environments seriously off kilter.
Drawn into emptier vessels, and pumped out of fuller
ones, ballast water has been described as a "marine
cocktail on the move." It can harbor an assortment
of tiny plants and larval-stage animals as well as harmful
bacteria that could invade U.S. waters.
The United States Coast Guard is proposing mandatory
measures to regulate that soup of foreign organisms culled
from distant waters. The hope is to keep non-indigenous
aquatic hitchhikers from cruising in ballast tanks to
America's shores - and maybe prevent the nation's next
zebra mussel. That freshwater mollusk from southeastern
Europe has infested the Great Lakes and migrated down
the Mississippi River to New Orleans, causing billions
of dollars in damages to intake pipes and water-control
But Florida already may be grappling with ballast water
impacts. A 4-inch marine mollusk thought to be a likely
ballast water arrival - the Asian green mussel - is spawning
prolifically in Tampa Bay, Fla., and fanning out. Discovered
there in 1999, the mussel has covered the mesh mouths
of power plant intake pipes, reducing their ability to
draw cooling water.
Now the tiny hairs it uses to latch onto docks, pilings,
seawalls, buoys and other hard surfaces are fouling the
filters of a $100 million Tampa Bay desalination plant.
The invader, native to the Indo-Pacific, waters also is
adhering to bare sand, where it could crowd out sea grasses,
said Nanette Holland, spokeswoman for the intergovernmental
Tampa Bay Estuary Program.
"The green mussel has been a rude awakening for
us," said Debra Ingrao, a senior biologist with Mote
The mussel has spread south to Charlotte Harbor, Fla.,
and Naples, Fla., and has turned up in waters near Jacksonville,
Fla. It likely will work its way into the Florida Keys,
the U.S. Geological Survey estimates.
Scientists say two other creatures in Florida coastal
waters may have landed here in ballast water discharges:
_The sometimes basketball-sized Australian spotted jellyfish,
which bobbed into the Gulf of Mexico by the thousands
in 2000, clogging shrimp nets. They surfaced a year later
in the Indian River Lagoon near Merritt Island, Fla.
_A bottom-smothering, seaweed-like algae called Caulerpa
brachypus from the Pacific Ocean. First seen off the Port
of Palm Beach, Fla., in 2001, the lime green algae creeps
over coral reefs, sealing off their fish-sheltering crevices.
As ships have swelled in size so have their ballast tanks.
Williams College marine science professor James Carlton
equates a typical ballast tank to "the size of an
auditorium that seats 700 people." About 2 million
gallons an hour of ballast water are released into U.S.
coastal waters, experts estimate.
"Who knows how many (non-native species) have come
in and they haven't been a problem for us, so we haven't
really noticed them," Ingrao said.
Ballast tanks can be a hostile environment, but biologists
think some organisms can survive transoceanic trips. In
the San Francisco Bay and Delta there are now than 200
non-native species, with others arriving at the rate of
one every 14 weeks, according to the U.S. Environmental
"There's no natural predators (here) to keep those
species in check," said Bivan Patnaik, aquatic nuisance
species regulatory coordinator for the Coast Guard.
Ballast water dumps are restricted in the Great Lakes
and part of the Hudson River. But the Coast Guard proposes
extending mandatory ballast controls to other U.S. waters
where only a voluntary program has been in effect - and
with unclear results, officials said.
The International Maritime Organization, a United Nation's
agency focused on maritime safety and preventing pollution
from ships, is gearing up to formulate an international
policy on ballast water too, shipping industry representatives
The chief effect of the Coast Guard's proposed rule would
be to force vessels outfitted with ballast tanks - from
freighters to cruise ships to oil tankers - to purge those
containers at least 200 miles from their destinations
on the U.S. coast. They would have to exchange the foreign
coastal water they picked up for mid-ocean water, said
Coast Guard environmental specialist Richard Everett.
The theory behind that: organisms in the deeper sea, where
conditions such as water temperature and salinity are
more stable, won't tolerate coastal waters where those
things are more in flux, Everett said.
Under proposed rules, ships are given three other options:
sanitize their ballast water on-board (no approved methods
exist yet); empty it into on-shore containers for treatment
(virtually none have been created) and hold onto it, the
rule says. Retaining it hinders a captain's ability to
balance new loads of goods so "why would you want
to do that?" Everett said.
The rules would be more lenient to traffic closer to
the coast - like boats coming from the Bahamas. Those
vessels wouldn't be required to head 200 miles out switch
ballast water but must only discharge what is operationally
necessary, officials said. They also will have to record
where they obtain and release it. Public comment is being
accepted through Oct. 28.
Moving water weight around at sea is not simple. It alters
a vessel's stability and adds physical stresses in mid-voyage,
said Chris Koch, president of the World Shipping Council,
a group representing container ship operators. Despite
the headaches it might cause, the council supports what
the Coast Guard is doing as a way to uniformly deal with
a problem, he said.
The Coast Guard eventually hopes to propose a ballast
water standard - essentially dictating what that water
is allowed to contain upon discharge.
"The harder question in all this is: How clean should
ballast water be?" Koch said. "How much zooplankton
needs to be removed, how much bacteria?"
The Transportation Institute, representing U.S.-flagged
ships, backs the ballast water rules too, said government
affairs director Gerard Snow. "It will perhaps create
more work, but we're also realistic. There is a potential
problem with ballast water."
At Port Everglades in Florida, ships are not permitted
to discharge anything into port waters, said spokeswoman
Ellen Kennedy. The Port of Palm Beach lacks a ballast
water policy but is preparing to devise one, said Deputy
Director Lori Baer.
The nation's ballast water hotspots so far have been
the Great Lakes and the San Francisco and Chesapeake bays,
experts said. Inland, Florida is overrun with exotic plants
and fish, but coastal waters have not been as besieged.
"You can't pick an up an organism and look on the
bottom and see made in Brazil, brought in by" Coast
Guard Lt. Cmdr. Kathy Moore said.
The Asian green mussels, which cropped up in the Caribbean
too, have red-flagged the ballast water issue for Florida.
"They just get layers and layers thick and literally
smother whatever they're growing on," said Amy Benson,
a Geological Survey fisheries biologist. "They seem
to just love concrete."
But there could be an upside. The filter feeders, which
devour plankton, could make local waters clearer. Zebra
mussels did that in the Great Lakes.
Experts think ballast tanks and ship engines could have
propelled the Australian spotted jellyfish, blamed for
declines in commercial fish catches in the Gulf, and the
bay bottom-smothering brachypus algae into Florida. But
they note that has not yet been proven.
Last spring, the reef-invading algae, after drifting
through the St. Lucie Inlet, wove itself into a 10-square-mile
patch south of Jenson Beach on the bed of the Indian River
Lagoon. It can grow explosively when fueled by nitrogen
from sewage discharge, said Harbor Branch Oceanographic
Institution researcher Brian Lapointe.
"It smothers the bottom, it overgrows just about
everything down there, sponges, hard corals, soft corals,
other good algae," he said.
Florida Sea Grant agent Leroy Creswell said he's glad
the Coast Guard is tackling ballast water invaders but
fears that could be a challenge for it. With ships operating
under a welter of foreign country flags and foreign rules
it could be harder to impose U.S. restrictions. He also
wonders about the Coast Guard's ability to tackle ballast
water hitchhikers amid its other pressing duties, including
intercepting illegal aliens and drug smugglers and defending
against terror attacks.
"They're just overwhelmed with stuff," Creswell
said. "And now they've got to start worrying about