Vessel reporting a weak link in national strategy to stem the flow of alien organisms to the U.S.

July 08, 2002

Of the estimated 100,000 ships entering U.S. ports from foreign waters each year, only 30 percent reported their ballast water management practices during the first two years that the U.S. Coast Guard mandated them to under the National Invasive Species Act of 1996 (NISA). The finding has prompted the Secretary of Transportation to recommend, in a report to Congress, that future noncompliance carry a penalty.

The recommendations stemmed from the first biennial report of the National Ballast Information Clearinghouse, a collaborative effort of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) and the U.S. Coast Guard, managed and operated by SERC since 1997. The National Ballast Information Clearinghouse data and biennial report are now publicly accessible at

Ships' ballast water, used to maintain stability, is a leading mechanism for the unwanted transfer of non-native marine- and freshwater species throughout the world. Decades of research indicate that ballast water contains a diverse and often dense community of organisms -- from fishes and crabs to bacteria and viruses. Upon discharge during normal ballast operations, hundreds to thousands of non-native species are introduced to U.S. coastal waters daily, and some of these organisms gain a foothold and spread. It is clear that many such biological invasions can alter dramatically the function of our ecosystems, cause significant economic losses and pose risks to human health.

Aquatic nonindigenous species first earned legislative attention in the United States in 1990, after zebra mussels from Eurasia clogged water supply pipes serving municipalities in the Great Lakes region. However, this was not an isolated event. Non-native species are established along every coast of the U.S., and scores to hundreds of non-native species are known to reside in individual bays and estuaries -- like Chesapeake Bay and San Francisco Bay -- which are focal points for global commerce and shipping. SERC scientists have shown that the number of documented invasions continues to increase in U.S. coastal waters. On a global scale, biological invasions are now considered the second greatest threat to the biological diversity, after habitat destruction.

Under the 1996 law, ships entering U.S. waters from outside the 200-mile-wide Exclusive Economic Zone are required to report ballast water management practices, informing a nationwide tracking system to measure the amount of ballast water discharged to each port and assess the management practices used to reduce the risk of species transfer. At present, shipmasters are asked to follow voluntary guidelines aimed at reducing the risk of introducing alien organisms into U.S. harbors. They are asked voluntarily either to exchange ballast water in the open ocean, retain ballast water from overseas coastal areas or use an alternative ballast water remediation process deemed effective by the U.S. Coast Guard in stemming the tide of non-native species invasions.

"It is notable that in California, where state law authorizes monetary and criminal penalties for non-compliance with federal ballast water reporting requirements, rates of reporting were much higher," said estuarine ecologist Gregory M. Ruiz, who directs the clearinghouse and leads the marine invasions research program at SERC. "In San Francisco, it was almost three times higher than the national average, at nearly 90 percent for the two-year period," he added.

Similar laws exist also in Washington and Oregon, accounting perhaps for the West Coast having the highest, regional rate of reporting at 67 percent of 15,311 arrivals. In contrast, the East Coast had only 29 percent of ships reporting. Regionally, the lowest reporting rate occurred on the Gulf Coast, at 17 percent of ships reporting. The clearinghouse report does not include the Great Lakes, which are regulated by the Nonindigenous Aquatic Nuisance Prevention and Control Act of 1990.

"The system is now in place to collect, analyze and disseminate key information about the delivery and management of ships' ballast water throughout the country, providing a critical tool to track changes in space and time and to inform management decisions at the local, state and federal levels. This is an important component in the national strategy to understand the operations of vessels and to monitor the implementation of management practices designed to reduce the risk of invasion over time," Ruiz noted.

Recommendations to Congress from the Secretary of Transportation are intended to implement this tracking system fully.

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

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