First ships to be equipped for the fight against invasive species

Apr 29, 2015

Credit U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

A fleet of Canadian-owned ships will be the first in the Great Lakes to have ballast treatment systems on board. The systems will kill invasive species that live in the ballast tanks of ocean going ships.

It’s a big step toward solving a problem that has plagued the Great Lakes for decades. But the issue is still contentious.

Aquatic hitchhikers from the other side of the world have completely changed the food web in the Great Lakes. Exotic mussels now carpet the bottom of Lake Michigan and one of the most common feeder fish in the lake is from Eastern Europe.

Having treatment systems on ships that kill these invaders before they can disembark is a technical challenge. The system has to kill organisms of any size, even ones smaller than a single cell, like viruses, says Allegra Cangelosi at the Great Ships Initiative.

“All the way up to multicellular things that are everything from plants to animals to everything in between,” she says.

It’s her job to test these treatment systems, and to certify that they meet the standards of the new federal law that will require ships to treat their ballast water. She says the tests done so far are promising.

Earlier this month, Montreal based Fednav announced it will begin installing treatment systems on its ships in October.

But environmental groups are not cheering this news. Jordan Lubetkin at the National Wildlife Federation says they don’t think the standard the federal government has set will stop invasive species.

“It’s better than what we have but it’s not going to seal the deal,” he says. “In the case of living, breathing, biological pollution we need assurances that we will protect our waters from future invaders.”

Environmental groups are suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, asking for more stringent requirements.

At the same time, there is an effort in Congress to soften the regulations. The legislation would strip the EPA of its authority over ballast water discharge and leave the matter to the U.S. Coast Guard. It would also prevent states from making more stringent requirements for ships entering their waters.