Coast Guard Plan to Prevent Invasive Species Plagued by Loopholes

More than 20 years after the invasion of the zebra mussel, invasive species continue to wreak havoc on the Great Lakes and the economy. A Coast Guard proposal to stop invaders falls short of protecting the world’s largest fresh-water resource.

10-02-2009 // Jeff Alexander

Aquatic invasive species threaten native fish and wildlife populations, contribute to bird die-offs, alter the food web, damage civic and business infrastructure, and harm the outdoor recreation economy.

All told, people, businesses and communities in the eight-state Great Lakes region pay at least $200 million per year in damage and control costs from non-native species like the zebra mussel and round goby.

At least 185 aquatic invasive species have been discoverered in the Great Lakes—and one new non-native species arrives in the lakes, on average, every 7 months.

The No. 1 way these invaders arrive is through ballast water discharge from ocean-going ships.

For years, the Coast Guard has dragged its feet in addressing the problem. Now it is trying—and had released a plan to require foreign ships to treat their ballast water to kill non-native organisms.

Invasive Species a Disease; Coast Guard Rule not Right Medicine

The U.S. Coast Guard’s plan to regulate ballast water discharges to keep freighters from importing more invasive species into the Great Lakes would take too long and is filled with loopholes, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

The Coast Guard is holding a hearing in Chicago, Ill., on a proposed rule to protect the Great Lakes and other U.S. waters from the introduction of aquatic invasive species via ballast water discharge.

“Invasive species from ballast water have infected the Great Lakes like a cancer. We need strong medicine to stop this disease, and we need it fast,” said Andy Buchsbaum, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center and co-chair of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. “The Coast Guard rule could be that medicine – but right now it’s too slow and it has too many loopholes.”

Rules Take Too Long—Gives Some Ships 22 Years to Comply

Buchsbaum said the proposed ballast water discharge standard is as environmentally protective as the toughest state law. But the proposal would give some ships up to 22 years to comply with the new regulations.

Of particular concern, Buchsbaum said, are ocean freighters from around the world that visit Great Lakes ports.

Foreign ships have imported 57 invasive species into the Great Lakes over the past 50 years, including zebra mussels, quagga mussels and the round goby.

“Ocean-going ships could avoid complying until after 2020, and there are loopholes that extend the deadline even farther,” Buchsbaum said. “That’s like waiting until the patient dies before offering any medicine.”

Invasive species that ocean freighters hauled into the Great Lakes in ballast water tanks now cause more than $200 million damage annually, according to a University of Notre Dame study.
“The Obama Administration needs to act swiftly to force foreign vessels to stop discharging into the Great Lakes and other U.S. waters harmful aquatic invasive species that impact our health, economy and way of life,” Buchsbaum said.

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