Protecting Biological Integrity
What if we could ship cargo without transplanting invasive species?
Over one trillion gallons of basin waters are used each day. Those waters are used for drinking, generating electricity, irrigating agricultural fields, treating wastes, and supporting a wide range of industrial operations. They also support an ecosystem of living things that, in turn, supports a recreational industry. There is no “unused” water in the system.
Until recently, the governance of users and uses was fragmented, driven by a patchwork of regulatory and common-law schemes, and only loosely connected to the health of the Lakes and the natural resources that depend upon those waters. When a firm secured the rights to export millions of gallons of Lake Superior water in tanker ships to Asia, the region was challenged to rethink how the two countries—eight states and two provinces—manage their shared waters.
How can we keep critters out of ballast water?
The Great Lakes Protection Fund supported a series of efforts to tackle this challenge. Expansive, cross-disciplinary project teams of university researchers, engineers, utility companies, ship owners, policy specialists, and government agency personnel began work in 1996. From this portfolio of work, a significant series of “firsts” were produced.
- Designed, installed, and tested the world’s first ballast water filtration system on a working vessel.
- Developed and demonstrated the first set of protocols to evaluate the effectiveness of ballast water treatment—on ship, on the shore, and in the lab.
- Developed, verified, and used the first set of methods to evaluate “hatch out” of organisms that remain in ballast tanks after water is discharged.
- Documented the makeup of the sediment in tanks on ships categorized as having no ballast on board.
- Designed and deployed the first remote monitoring technologies to track water levels, pumping activity, and water chemistry in ballast tanks while ships are underway.
What have we learned?
Fund-supported teams have come at the ballast issues from many angles and determined that because the threat of invasive species is dynamic, any response must be dynamic as well. They have found effective ways to evaluate not only the specific risks imposed, but the treatment systems at hand to prevent the transfer of invasive species… and they didn’t keep these exciting findings to themselves.
On an ongoing basis, project teams told the story of their work and relayed findings through a variety of channels. Journal articles and news stories reached a broad audience to inform the public about the potential harm of invasive species. Meanwhile, videos and conferences educated technologists and business investors about the cutting-edge developments coming out of the Great Lakes to improve the handling of ballast water.
These projects laid the groundwork for additional Fund investments to further the science of species detection. A current project team is working to produce an innovative, rapid detection technology—a real-time genetic probe to test ballast water for non-native organisms. This probe moves invasives detection technology out of the laboratory and into the field, drastically reducing the time it will take to learn the specific invasive species threat posed by a particular vessel.
Looking forward, the International Maritime Organization has established guidelines for ships to maintain specific ballasting standards. As these guidelines become requirements, it is estimated that the global ballast water treatment industry will be worth $34 billion over the next 10 years.
The Fund’s initial investment laid the foundation for a new, global industry and shaped a new fact of maritime commerce—ballast treatment systems. What originally began as a series of projects supported by the Great Lakes Protection Fund catalyzed widespread environmental and economic change.