The Real Cost of Aquatic Invaders

I was interested to read recently that ballast water standards adopted by New York to prevent the spread of invasive species have prompted concern among several Great Lakes Governors, who say that the regulations will halt shipping in the St. Lawrence Seaway and jeopardize thousands of jobs. The new standards, which are more stringent than the Phase One standards proposed by the United States Coast Guard, require vessels transiting through New York waters to install ballast water treatment systems in order to protect the fragile ecosystems in New York and in the Great Lakes.  In 2009, the right of NY to establish standards via the Clean Water Act process was upheld in a New York Court of Appeals suite brought forth by the shipping industry.

The new standards have far reaching effects as all ships entering the Great Lakes need to pass through NY waters and must therefore install the new treatment technologies to “inactivate” biological organisms and pathogens. Systems inactivate organisms using a variety of methods including filtration, UV irradiation, deoxygenation, electrolysis, ultrasound, and something ominously called chemical biocide. Unfortunately, due to a relatively small number of “real world” tests of system performance in a variety of environmental and vessel conditions, there remains a high level of uncertainty with regard to treatment effectiveness.

Ships emptying ballast water at the Port of Oakland . CREDIT: Monaca Noble, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

Examples of aquatic invasive species presently found on the West Coast include the European green crab (Carcinus maenas), Chinese mitten crab (Eriocheir sinensis), zebra mussels (genus  Dreissena), cordgrasses (genus Spartina), and  Undaria pinnatifida. West Coast states have undertaken multimillion dollar projects to control or eradicate these aquatic invasive species.It is widely recognized that aquatic invasive species wreak havoc on our natural systems and infrastructure. By out competing native plants and animals, modifying habitat, and disrupting food webs, their effects can be seen in coastal ecosystems worldwide. What is also known is that invasive species cost the US billions of dollars annually in damage to coastal infrastructure, eradication and control efforts, and disruption to ecosystem services.

The West Coast Governors Alliance on Ocean Health (WCGA) recognized the threat of invasive species to the ecological, social, public health, and economic integrity of the region’s marine resources. The WCGA action plan acknowledged the great work already underway in the region on ballast water through the Pacific Ballast Water Group which acts as a forum for states to coordinate their ballast water policies. On the West Coast, California has had an effective ballast water management program in place since 2000 which has focused on performance standards as well as ballast water exchange. It has served as a model for the West Coast and, unlike the fears raised by the Great Lakes, has not resulted in decreased port activity.

In addition, the WCGA formed the Spartina Eradication Action Coordination Team focused on eradicating and preventing the spread of this invasive cordgrass. While not typically spread through ballast water, non-native Spartina dominates newly restored tidal marshes, changes the hydrology of estuaries by modification of tidal creeks and navigational channels, displaces thousands of acres of shorebird habitat, drastically reduces biodiversity, and decreases available intertidal habitat for commercial shellfish production.

I wanted to talk to someone who knows whether ballast water treatment standards will be effective on the West Coast to preventing the spread of invasive species. Mark Sytsma, the Director of the Center for Lakes and Reservoirs at Portland State University and former co-chair of the Spartina Eradication Action Coordination Team, was gracious enough to answer some of my questions.

Do you think the NY ballast water standards are the answer to preventing the spread and introduction of invasive species in NY and on the Great Lakes?

Mark: Standards are not the only answer to preventing new introductions, [ballast water] treatment is. Standards are [only] a way to direct and evaluate the treatment effectiveness. Unfortunately, no one knows what discharge standards are protective for our water resources. How many new introductions are acceptable? At this point, we don’t know the answer to that.

Are many of the invasive species on the West Coast introduced through ballast water?

Mark: Yes. Look at the 2004 Lower Columbia River Aquatic Non-indigenous Species report on our website about introductions to the Columbia. There is similar literature on SF Bay. It’s hard to imagine how some species could have gotten to the West Coast from Asia, except by hitchhiking in a ballast water tank.

Would ballast water treatment work on the West Coast?

Mark: I think everyone thinks that treatment is the answer. The question is how to treat [ballast water] quickly and effectively. There are a number of systems available and the California State Lands Commission has a report that describes the effectiveness and status of [treatment] systems.

What efforts has the Spartina ACT done to prevent the re-introduction of Spartina?

Mark: The funding that the WCGA provided for the Spartina action plan last year was used to develop environmental documents for Spartina treatment in Humboldt Bay and to do control of S. patens in Siuslaw estuary in Oregon. Both of these could be considered prevention, because infestations from these two sites threatens to spread to other areas on the West Coast. Certainly, those of us in Oregon see the Humboldt work as critical to preventing spread of Spartina to Oregon.

Thanks to Mark I was able to gain some insight from one of the experts on the West Coast. For me the questions raised by the Great Lakes Governors highlight the perceived tension between economic growth and ecological preservation. However, as we have seen in examples from the West Coast and around the world, failing to prevent and/or control aquatic invasive species is costly to infrastructure, jobs, and the environment. It is an investment in the future health of our economy and oceans that I think is worth making.