Still Swimming Upstream: Invasive Species Battle Anything But Over

Published Jan 11, 2011 2:57 PM by The Maritime Executive

As Michigan again moves to act unilaterally, the waters become even muddier as the United States tries to put an end to the decade-long nightmare defined by invasive species introduced by ship’s ballast water. Is the end really in sight?

Even as the U.S. Coast Guard moves agonizingly closer to finalizing a national ballast water treatment (BWT) standard, it is also becoming increasingly clear (no pun intended) that the new, proposed standard, if codified, will only constitute a small baby step towards solving the problem. Unilateral actions such as that taken recently by the state of Michigan – and many others – as it seeks to stop invasive species from entering its waters are perhaps understandable, but anything but helpful. In the end, it is just this sort of thing which will prolong the process now in play, for as much as another decade.

Michigan, long frustrated by inaction on the federal level to solve the BWT problem, has never been shy about doing what it thinks is necessary to protect their own interests. This includes the marked propensity to tell shippers and other states what to do, when to do it and how that should be done. Their first foray into BWT enforcement came about two years ago when they enacted their own statute to prevent the invasion of foreign species into Michigan waters. Unfortunately, Michigan lawmakers failed to take into consideration that fish can and do swim; and they often do just that without regard for imaginary lines of demarcation drawn on a chart. Ultimately declared legal by a U.S. Appeals Court, the move solved nothing and only brought more pressure on a local economy that was already on life support to begin with.

As we kick off into the New Year, the Great Lakes State is at it again, this time asking the U.S. Supreme Court to force the closure of Chicago-area locks and waterways in order to stop Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes. The move, again with no guarantee that it will work, is anything but a done deal. On the other hand, if the effort does succeed in closing the waterways, it could adversely affect the economy of another state, as well.

Beating up on Michigan alone would not do justice to the scope of the damage being done by the balkanized approach being taken by as many as seven other states in their efforts to control and eradicate the problem of invasive species in U.S. waters. On the other hand, if their combined efforts have the net effect of moving the federal government a little faster through the regulatory labyrinth that hampers any common sense solution to a variety of similar problems, then that’s a good thing. Unfortunately, the tenet of state’s rights to control issues on their own waterways is a fairly strong concept and unlikely to be overridden by the coming (and it is coming…) federal solution. What’s a mother to do?

The new Coast Guard proposal, already through the comment period, makes a lot of sense. It virtually mirrors the IMO standard – providing a global solution – and if put into play, would give operators and manufacturers alike the necessary courage to go ahead and build and install BWT systems for existing and planned tonnage. Absent the fear that these systems would not be “grandfathered” in the event of a stricter standard imposed in the future, we would then be well on the way to solving the problem. Still, some local entities here in the United States would like to see a standard that is – wait for it – 1,000 times more restrictive than the one represented by U.S. and IMO efforts.

The more stringent goal sought by many individual states is, at this time, simply a pipe dream. I have been assured by those who do the testing that the technology to verify this sort of compliance does not currently exist and is a long time from being here, if it comes at all. In the meantime, the fish and microorganisms continue to arrive at our shores. What does exist is proven, viable technology – from multiple manufacturers and vendors – to meet the sensible standard laid out by the Coast Guard and already agreed to by IMO. It is way past time to get that equipment onto the ships where it can do some good.

In his press release trumpeting the most recent wrench that they’ve thrown into the mix, Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox insists, “The actions of Illinois and federal authorities have not been enough to assure us the Lakes are safe. That's why the waterways must be shut down until we are assured that Michigan will be protected.” In the same breath, he adds, “Michigan families whose jobs and way of life depend on the health of the Great Lakes deserve to know there is a long-term solution to this crisis.” Analyzing his logic, it is clear that he may have gotten the first and third sentences right. Anything in between shows a marked lack of understanding to the real problem, and to what extent these sorts of Balkanized efforts can affect the solution and the welfare of others.

I have said this before but I repeat it again now for emphasis: On a local level, poorly thought out, Band-Aid-type solutions to complex international issues usually do not get the job done and often, they simply make things worse. For ship owners and cargo interests faced with the costs of installing expensive equipment that may or may not be part of the final global solution, there are no easy answers. Local solutions for some issues can sometimes make sense, but decisions on maritime matters are best left to those who are tasked with handling these things at the federal level. It goes without saying that solutions formulated by sometimes obscure, poorly informed members of Congress - or state legislators, for that matter - have no place in the process.

The proposed Coast Guard standard represents real progress and real solutions. As such, it is time for all states to rally around one universal protocol. Failing that, we are doomed to another decade of bureaucratic nightmares while the problem grows ever larger, more local economies get hurt and shippers risk getting penalized for something that they would like to fix, once and for all – but have absolutely no ability to do so. It’s just that simple. - MarEx

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Joseph Keefe is the Editor in Chief of THE MARITIME EXECUTIVE. He can be reached with comments on this editorial at jkeefe@maritime-executive.com and/or join the Maritime Executive ‘Linked In’ group at by clicking http://www.linkedin.com/e/gis/47685>