Report: Ohio ports at particular risk for invaders

Sandusky, Ohio – Ports in Sandusky, Ashtabula, and Toledo are
particularly vulnerable to a new wave of invasive species,
according to a new federal report.

The National Center for Environmental Assessment issued the
warning in a study released last month. It identified 30 nonnative
species that pose a medium or high risk of reaching the lakes and
28 others that already have a foothold and could disperse
widely.

Among the fish that scientists fear could cause ecological and
environmental damage are the monkey goby, the blueback herring and
the tench, also known as the “doctor fish.”

The report described some of the region’s busiest ports as
strong potential targets for invaders, including the three in Ohio;
Gary, Ind.; Duluth, Minn.; Superior, Wis.; Chicago; and
Milwaukee.

“These findings support the need for detection and monitoring
efforts at those ports believed to be at greatest risk,” the report
said.

Exotic species are one of the biggest ecological threats to the
U.S.’s largest surface freshwater system. At least 185 are known to
have a presence in the Great Lakes, although the report says just
13 have done extensive harm to the aquatic environment and the
regional economy.

Perhaps the most notorious are the fish-killing sea lamprey and
the zebra mussel, which has clogged intake pipes of power plants,
industrial facilities and public water systems, forcing them to
spend hundreds of millions of dollars on cleanup and repairs.

Roughly two-thirds of the new arrivals since 1960 are believed
to have hitched a ride to the lakes inside ballast tanks of cargo
ships from overseas ports.

For nearly two decades, U.S. and Canadian agencies have required
oceangoing freighters to exchange their fresh ballast water with
salty ocean water before entering the Great Lakes system. Both
nations also recently have ordered them to rinse empty tanks with
seawater in hopes of killing organisms lurking in residual pools on
the bottom.

Despite such measures, “it is likely that nonindigenous species
will continue to arrive in the Great Lakes,” said the report by the
national center, which is part of the Environmental Protection
Agency.

Hugh MacIsaac, a University of Windsor biologist and director of
the Canadian Aquatic Invasive Species Network, said he expected
very few invaders to reach the Great Lakes in ballast water now
that both nations are requiring tank flushing at sea. Flushing and
ballast water exchange should kill 99 percent of organisms, he
said.

Rep. Michael Skindell, D-Lakewood, sponsored legislation in 2007
to allow the Ohio DNR to regulate ballast water discharges into
Lake Erie. At the time, Skindell acknowledged that it’s a problem
the federal government needs to solve. The thought was that Ohio
could act in the interim, and legislation by the states would put
pressure on federal lawmakers to deal with the issue. The bill,
however, never gained traction.

The Ohio Environmental Council has kept the pressure on federal
and state lawmakers.

“This is an urgent wake-up call that we need strong federal
legislation to plug the drain on any new introductions of exotic,
invasive pests in Lake Erie,” said Kristy Meyer, director of
agricultural and clean water programs for the non-profit
council.

According to the environmental report, from 2006-2007, 382
metric tons of ballast water were discharged at Great Lakes ports
from 107 different vessels. While the port in Duluth received the
most ballast water discharge in total, Toledo’s port received more
than 70,000 metric tons of ballast water discharge from vessels. It
is for this reason, the report indicated, that Toledo is the port
of greatest concern.

The report also found that ships claiming to have no ballast on
board (NOBOBs) had almost triple the amount of discharges than
ballasted ships, at 1,730 discharges and 618 respectively. Roughly
90 percent of all the ships that enter the St. Lawrence Seaway
claim that they have no ballast on board, although in reality they
actually may have potentially devastating creatures that remain and
survive in the residual material left in the ballast tanks. These
NOBOBs can then take on ballast water in the Seaway and later
discharge the potentially infested waters at any of the Great Lakes
ports.

The report finds that the top three Great Lakes ports receiving
the most ballast discharges from NOBOBs include Toledo, Sandusky,
and Ashtabula. Ashtabula was an extreme case, with 297 discharges
from NOBOBs, totaling close to 600,000 metric tons of ballast water
discharge.

In January, the Ohio EPA’s 401 Water Quality Certification for
Lake Erie shippers took effect. The new state permits require ships
to either exchange their coastal ballast water with open ocean
water or flush their ballast holds with saltwater. In theory, these
practices are intended to purge or kill the freshwater non-native
species, although environmentalists are skeptical about the
procedure’s effectiveness.

“We cannot rely on the Ohio EPA’s weak permit to slam the door
on invasive species,” the OEC’s Meyer said.

Some Lake Erie large water users spend $350,000 to $400,000 each
year to clear zebra mussels from intake pipes, which can result in
increased burden to taxpayers and water users. Federal agencies
estimate that clean-up costs of zebra mussels will top $5 billion
over the next 10 years for utilities and manufacturers alone.

Tom Johengen, a research scientist with the University of
Michigan and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s
Great Lakes Environmental Research Center, said the report is
largely an “academic exercise” designed to keep the spotlight on
the issue of invasives. The key, he said, is prevention rather than
treatment.

“We have never been able to eliminate any aquatic invader that’s
gotten into the system, even those where we’ve detected it early.
I’m not so sure we have many options to deal with that” said
Johengen.

“I think we absolutely have to focus on prevention and treatment
systems on ships,” he said.

Rick Graham, who represents the Ohio division of the Izaak
Walton League of America, said individual states may be better
suited to deal with invasives, at least initially to fill the
void.

“We recommend that each state get (ballast legislation) on the
ground and running immediately,” he said. “The best way to deal
with it is federally. But, speed is of the essence … and this is
not viewed as a national issue. The problem is, if you look at how
the zebra mussel spread, it’s unbelievable how fast it spread and
other species could do the same.”

A patchwork of legislation is clearly not the ideal approach,
said Johengen.

“Hopefully, the states are forcing some federal response,” he
said. “Because we can’t leave it at just (the state) approach. It
won’t be effective.”

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