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Great Lakes Article:

Rules urged to cut impact of ballast water on sea life
By Neil Santaniello
Knight Ridder Tribune
10/15/03

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 structures.

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 Marine Laboratory.

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 Protection Agency.

"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 said.

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 jellyfish.

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