Rules ineffective for incoming invasive species

September 8, 2003

Associated Press
King 5 News

SEATTLE - State rules aimed at preventing ships from transporting invasive snails, crabs and other nonnative species have been so ineffective that regulators say they plan to ask lawmakers for the authority to board and inspect ships to make sure rules aren't being broken.

Currently, Washington requires ships to dump, replace or treat the thousands of gallons of ballast water that each ship may carry before heading into Puget Sound or any other state port. The system relies on ship operators to "self-report."

"Some do an extremely good job, but some people don't understand how to comply. Others are lazy, and some submit reports that are complete gibberish," said Pam Meacham, assistant aquatic nuisance species coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, which reviews each ship's ballast-water report.

Invasive species cause more than $137 billion a year in damage in the United States, The Seattle Times reported Monday.

Scientists recently discovered more than 20 percent of the organisms in the lower Columbia River don't belong there, critters like the New Zealand mudsnail. The snails, no bigger than the date on a dime, can number in the hundreds of thousands per square yard in parts of the lower river. They push out native snails and alter feeding patterns for some threatened fish.

While no one disputes the risks invasive species pose, efforts to prevent them from arriving in the first place are far from adequate, regulators said.

Last week, the federal Environmental Protection Agency decided not to regulate ship ballast discharges, arguing the task should be left to the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard is working on changes to make its rules mandatory, rather than voluntary, and is searching for ways to enforce them.

"There's research and development going on about ways to verify that there's actually been a ballast-water exchange," said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Keith Ward in California.

In Washington state, a survey published this year concluded that crews on one-quarter of the 81 ships studied acknowledged violating rules because dealing with the water was expensive or time-consuming. About half were discharging improperly or documenting their efforts so poorly it was hard to tell if it was being done correctly, The Times reported.

"It's not telling us anything we didn't expect," said Scott Smith, aquatic nuisance species director for Fish and Wildlife.

"It's not like the shipping industry is a bunch of scumbags. It's human nature. If people are on the highway and they know there's no police, they will speed. It's not an attack on the industry." Ship operators acknowledge their industry plays a role in shuttling about nonnative species but are suspicious of the survey's findings, published this year in Aquatic Invaders magazine. They say a survey conducted by a graduate student who simply boarded the ships and interviewed crew members isn't enough to justify increased state regulation.

"I'm not ready to leap to 'Let's have a duplicative, full state program' just because someone's thesis is 'They all lie,' " said Mike Moore, executive director of the Puget Sound Steamship Operators Association. "I'm also not arguing that reporting has been golden, but let's understand more before we call everybody liars." Congress, states and international maritime organizations have pushed to clean up ballast-dumping, as new invasive-species problems are discovered every year.

San Francisco Bay is considered the most severely invaded waterway in the country, with more than 230 nonnative species taking over areas of the coast. Some have no known predators. Many reproduce rapidly, glom onto structures such as water pipes and cost millions to remove.

Scientists are still trying to gauge precisely how many nuisance species have invaded areas of Puget Sound, though its estuaries are clearly at risk from plants like spartina.

The most problematic area in Washington appears to be the lower Columbia River, where at least 61 of the 292 known species are invasive.

Some, such as the Asian clam Corbicula fluminea, now dominate the sediment in some areas to the point where "there's nothing else there," said Mark Sytsma, a Portland State University professor studying the river. They can clog irrigation ditches and fish screens and displace native mussels.

Washington's rules require ships coming from overseas to exchange water 200 miles out at sea. But ships coming from coastal waters south of Coos Bay, Ore., must travel at least 50 miles out to sea to exchange, when most typically travel within 30 miles of the coast. Not all captains want to divert that far off course.

Regulators and the shipping industry don't always agree on how far out to sea ships must be to safely dump their water. And rules don't apply to all ships. The Navy, for example, has its own policies on ballast exchange and, citing national security, has declined to disclose the origins of the ballast water its ships cart around.


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