May 17, 2020

How ballast water from ships is destroying the Great Lakes ecosystem

Freddie Pierce
4 min
How will new ballast water law affect Great Lakes region?
Correction: The fine authorities of the Great Lakes recently brought it to our attention that Asian carp were in fact brought to the United States by Ca...
Correction: The fine authorities of the Great Lakes recently brought it to our attention that Asian carp were in fact brought to the United States by Catfish farmers and not from the ballast water found in ships. Come to think of it, how the heck would an Asian carp get in a ship's hold for ballast water anyways? That's just ridiculous! We apologize, and please feel free to contact me (Brett Booen) by phone or email with any concerns about any of the content on Supply Chain Digital. We apologize for the mistake. 

A New York environmental regulation that will go into affect on January 1, 2012 has officials in the shipping industry worried about the future and viability of transporting goods by way of the Great Lakes.

Enforcement of the regulation in New York waters would prevent passage into and out of the Great Lakes by any ship that doesn’t meet the strict standards as laid out by New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation. The standard deals primarily with the purity and salinity of the ballast water carried inside of ships.

Ballast water is taken on by cargo ships take as a way of gaining stability before setting out to sea with its hefty inventory of cargo. Upon arrival to a new port, those ships will often release the foreign ballast water into the water where they arrive. It is a necessary feature of both commercial and international shipping, but it comes with a considerable impact to native ecosystems. Because ballast water can contain non-native species that generally upset the natural order of the food chain, it can be damaging to both the environment as well as the economy.

Executives in the shipping industry, however, feel that the New York regulation will be detrimental to the future of trade in the region.

“We’ll have to stop doing business in New York,” SAID Mark Barker, president of Interlake Steamship Co., whose nine ships carry cargo to New York. “That (regulation) will affect my customers. They probably won’t be able to get low-cost marine transportation.”

Meanwhile, the supporters of the regulation, which includes commercial fisherman and wildlife and environmental groups, believe that the rule will help keep foreign fish from invading the Great Lakes region and crowd out the native species.

In the Great Lakes region since the late 1800s, the EPA estimates that at least 25 non-native species of fish have entered the ecosystem. At least 30 percent of those invasive species are figured to have come from ballast water disposal in and around the major waterways. The round gobu, a few species of zooplankton (see above), sea lamprey and Eurasian ruffe are among a few of the alien species that were discovered. By far the most prolific, though, is the Asian carp. The Asian carp is a large, heavily consuming and rapidly reproducing specimen that has taken over a few waterways around the Great Lakes. Measures, including electric barriers, have been put in place to negate the Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes. It’s a fish that literally swims around devouring everything in its site and only stops to reproduce a hundred more fish just like it to do the same. The Asian carp was brought into US ecosystems by catfish farmers in the 1970s, however, so we cannot blame ballast water for their introduction. Check out the above photo from the Red Neck Olympics for the creative ways that people are finding to depopulate the Asian carp. 

Opponents of the ballast water regulation say that there isn’t technology readily available to help ships meet the stringent New York standards for ballast water saliency. A recent report valued the NY regulation 100 times more strict than the standard set by the International Maritime Organization in 2004. Over 100 countries make up the IMO, including both the United States and Canada.

The regulation’s opponents are mainly shipping industry executives whose business will be greatly impacted by enforcement of the regulation. The shipping companies are openly lobbying for its dismissal. They are also making it aware that their customers will probably have to find alternative shipping arrangements at the beginning of 2012 if the measure holds true to form.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the shipping industry at the heart of discussion involving environmental impacts. In December, a climate change conference in Cancun targeted shipping and logistics as the main industries that need to kick start environmental change.

And it certainly won't be the last. This battle between Industry and the Environment is far from over. 

For another related story, check out how manufacturing giant Caterpillar boosted its green credentials with this major recycling effort. 

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