Ship Ballast Controls Essential

June 4, 2007
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As the debate rages regarding immigration policies for humans along this nation’s land borders, another battle over territorial access is being staged in a federal courthouse in Detroit this week. Its outcome will have vital consequences on the sustainability of the Great Lakes as an economic engine that is faced with being choked off by unwanted predators of the aquatic sort.

Ocean-going vessels have been introducing invasive species to North America for untold decades. As is outlined in a Business Journal story on page 14, scientists believe that the ballast water dumped by ocean-going ships passing through the St. Lawrence Seaway is responsible for many of the 183 (and climbing) invasive species that currently inhabit the Great Lakes.

State Sen. Patty Birkholz, R-Saugatuck Township, is leading the latest charge to gain compliance from commercial shippers with the 2004 Michigan Ballast Water Statute. The law requires that ocean-going vessels obtain a Ballast Water Control General Permit from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to pass through state waters. The law mandates those shippers to eliminate the environmental threats posed by their ballast discharges.

A significant crutch for shippers, and one that provides them with the basis for their arguments against Michigan’s law, is that other states bordering the lakes do not yet require such ballast treatment, although similar laws are in the works in many of those locales. Federal legislation has been introduced time and again by Michigan lawmakers, focusing both on additional research involving invasive species, as well as a regional crackdown on ballast discharges. Those efforts have not led to enforceable legislation.

Why should we care about those creepy critters, anyway? Start with the $4 billion Great Lakes sport-fishing industry. An estimated $2 billion of angler money flows into the Michigan economy each year. Fish stocks can’t compete with exotic species that are easily established but nearly impossible to eradicate or control once they’re here.

In fact, a deadly fish virus that has killed thousands of fish in three Great Lakes and several inland lakes was recently found in Lake Michigan. Wisconsin officials announced May 24 that a dead brown trout that washed ashore near the Kewaunee and Algoma area tested positive for viral hemorrhagic septicemia, or VHS. VHS has already killed thousands of fish from 20 different species in lakes Ontario, Erie and Huron. Scientists believe an ocean freighter carried VHS into the Great Lakes.

Lakeshore communities and power companies spend significant funds protecting municipal water, dispatching divers to remove zebra mussels from intake pipes. The Eurasian milfoil kills plants, destroying the aquifer in the state’s streams and lakes.

And what about “existing” control efforts? Just last week it was reported the new fish barrier on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal designed to keep the damaging Asian carp from spilling into the Great Lakes is far from being operational.  It was slated to go online in 2005, but the risks involved have thus far been an obstacle — for humans. The system would be effective in stunning the migrating fish, but it also electrifies the water, making it risky for barge operators who make their living that way, not to mention recreational users of the waterways.

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