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Invasive Species Hitch A Ride... And Harm Our Waters

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Coast guard inspectors examine the ships records.
Sabri Ben-Achour
Coast guard inspectors examine the ships records.

At Baltimore's Inner Harbor, new Mercedes Benzes are rolling out one after another, out of a 100-foot tall ship hailing from South Hampton, England. The ship arrived to Baltimore the day before, bringing car shipments for the U.S. market. But that's not all the ship brought.

Along with the gleaming luxury vehicles, the ship also carried 9,000 metro tons of water. As ships like this take on or drop off cargo, they have to take on and drop off water to maintain balance. It's called ballast water. And it's dangerous.

"It's a huge problem," says Matey Kanchev, master of the ship. "There are hundreds of non-native species in the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes and other coastal waters around the U.S., and a lot of those species have huge environmental impacts and economic impacts. One of the main ways the get to new environments is through ballast water."

Petty officer Joshua Diaz was on board inspecting Kanchev's ocean liner for the Coast Guard. He says they do ballast exams on every vessel they go out to. The Coast Guard team looks at where the ship's ballast was taken by using a small handheld tube-like device to analyze the water.

The device is used to gather water samples, which will then be used to measure the percentage of salinity of the water. Salinity is key because right now, trans-oceanic ships have to do what's called an open water exchange. They go 200 miles off the coast, and dump their coastal ballast water out there.

"The whole idea is that you reduce the amount of coast species that you introduce," says Whitman Miller, with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. "The coastal species are very unlikely to survive in open ocean water, and pelagic species are unlikely to survive in coastal waters. So it's a way of reducing the density of larvae that you introduce to coastal systems."

But not all ships are doing that. Some simply violate the law, but more significant are the ships that don't have to do it. Ships that travel within the Americas tend to hug the coast, going from port to port. It's more difficult for them to veer off course by 200 miles and do an exchange, especially when they aren't required to. So more than two-thirds of the ballast water that comes down the coast from as far away as Brazil, doesn't get exchanged.

"The idea really now is to move toward treating ballast water on ships," says Mario Tamburi, with the University of Maryland. "There's lots of different ways, over 50 different companies have come up with their own mousetrap if you will. A lot physically pretreat the water and hit it with a second disinfection step, either a UV treatment, chlorine or ozone."

But the obstacle so far hasn't been technology; it's governance. The Environmental Protection Agency, the Coast Guard, California, and New Jersey all have different authority and different proposed rules, and the International Maritime Organization has a still un-implemented convention, too.

The industry has been asking the government to agree upon single technology standard, which the Coast Guard and EPA are working on.

"It's going to be very expensive," Chris Koch, president of the World Shipping Council. "It's going to cost the industry billions of dollars to do that. But the industry is prepared to do it, it just hasn't been able to do it up to this point because the government hasn't been clear on what the standards it's going to require."

For now, everyone's waiting on the Coast Guard and the EPA. They say they'll announce their rules "sometime soon."


[Music: "Stuck on You" by Lionel Ritchie from The Definitive Collection]

Photos: Invasive Species Hitch A Ride

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