U.S. Losing Battle Against Aquatic Invaders

By J.R. Pegg

June 17, 2003 (ENS) - Invasive species are estimated to cost the United States some $138 billion annually and are forever changing a variety of the nation's ecosystems, a panel of witnesses told a Senate panel today. Although the government can - and must - install new measures to try and limit the influx of new species, the witnesses said, there is virtually no chance of closing off the nation's waters to foreign invaders and most that are already here are here to stay.

"Once a nonindigenous species is established in an ecosystem, that ecosystem is changed forever," said Timothy Keeney, deputy assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere. "You can never go back to where you were before the species was introduced."

Keeney testified today at the Senate Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Water hearing on the "National Aquatic Invasive Species Act of 2003," a bill that seeks to reauthorize and amend the Nonindigenous Aquatic Nuisance Prevention and Control Act of 1990.


Timothy Keeney is deputy assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere (Photo courtesy NOAA)
Today's hearing illustrated that the federal government is clearly struggling with the broad scope of challenges that surround preventing and containing aquatic invasive species, which typically slip into the country within the ballast water of ocean vessels.

The General Accounting Office (GAO) reports that the current efforts fall far short of what is required to stop the flow of aquatic invasive species into the United States - many of which have entered the nation's waters through the Great Lakes.

Some 145 aquatic invasive species have found a new home in the Great Lakes, and many inland states are now struggling with rising populations of invaders, such as the zebra mussel, which can crowd out native species and dominate aquatic ecosystems.

The federal government's plan for dealing with invasive species "lacks a clear, long term desired outcome and quantifiable measures of performance," according to Barry Hill, director of Interior Issues for the GAO's Office of Environment and Natural Resources. Implementation of the plan has been slow and is far from complete, Hill said, and the federal government lacks legal requirements for controlling established invasive species and does not adequately fund state efforts.

"Current federal efforts are not adequate to prevent the introduction of invasive species into the Great Lakes via the ballast water of ships," Hill said.

Ballast water, which stabilizes ships and is discharged at ports of call and en route, is considered the primary means by which aquatic invasive species are transported. The United States receives more than 79 million metric tons of ballast water from overseas each year.

The current requirement that vessels carrying out an open ocean exchange of ballast water "does not effectively remove or kill all organisms in the tanks," Hill explained, and the Coast Guard does not even enforce this requirement strictly enough.

"Although federal officials believe more should be done to protect the Great Lakes from ballast water discharges, their plans for doing so depend on the development of standards and technologies that will take many years," Hill told the committee.

Michigan Senator Carl Levin, a lead sponsor of the bill, says it will address these gaps that Hill has outlined. The bill authorizes some $170 million a year to answer some of the funding shortfalls, outlines early detection monitoring and rapid response plans, and sets up a timeframe for ballast water standards.

It would require the U.S. Coast Guard to set an interim standard to use either ballast water exchange or technology to reduce the number of living organisms in ballast tanks by 95 percent.

"This interim standard is not intended to be implemented for the long run and it is not perfect," said Levin, a Democrat. "But a final standard is difficult to set today or in the near future because of the limited research that has been conducted on how clean or sterile ballast water discharge should be and what is the best expression of a standard."

"Rather than wait many more years before taking action to stop new introductions, I believe that an imperfect but clear and achievable interim standard for treatment technology is the right approach," Levin said.


First found in the Great Lakes in 1988, the zebra mussel is now in the waters of some 20 U.S. states. (Photo courtesy University of Wisconsin Sea Grant)
There is bipartisan support for the bill, which has 18 cosponsors, and many believe the government needs to set a standard in order to give technology companies something to aim for.

"Companies will not move and take the risk until we have these interim standards," said Senator John Warner, a Virginia Republican and cosponsor of the bill.

But federal officials at the hearing, while generally supportive of the bill's intent, are wary of the timeframe and road map laid out in the bill for developing a standard and for its early detection and rapid response plan requirements.

The bill calls for the Coast Guard to develop the interim standard, but for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop the final standard.

This is a bad idea, according to Joseph Angelo, director of standards for the U.S. Coast Guard, that will "unnecessarily complicate and inevitably delay the implementation of an effective mandatory federal ballast water management regime."

"The interim standard that requires the removal of 95 percent of the viable organisms taken in by the vessel as specified in the bill, presents near insurmountable monitoring and enforcement challenges," Angelo said.

The United States is involved with the UN's International Maritime Organization's effort to come up with ballast water standards, Angelo added, and is hopeful meaningful standards can be agreed upon at the international level.

The bill's call for early detection and rapid response plans appear "overly prescriptive," said Lori Williams, executive director of the National Invasive Species Council, an interdepartment council created to coordinate federal activities regarding invasive species.

She fears these programs do not afford federal agencies, the council or the states the needed flexibility they need, and is concerned that "reporting requirements for the states may also be burdensome or create possible barriers to rapid action."

"Prevention must be the first line of defense," Williams said. "Prevention is the largest responsibility for the federal government - often once these species become established, it does tend to fall to the states."

The reach of the federal government into state efforts to deal with aquatic invasive species appears to touch a nerve with some, including Colorado Senator Wayne Allard.

"Invasive species create overlapping dilemmas and this is one thing that we must be careful of," the Republican Senator said. "Any legislation must focus directly on the needs of our states and their water and continued federal involvement must not infringe on local and private rights."

Although the ballast water standard would cover the entire nation, the early detection and rapid response programs are "voluntary," Levin said, and "no state has to accept the funding or the programs." lamprey

Sea lampreys - shown here attached to lake trout - were a major cause of the collapse of lake trout, white fish and chub populations in the Great Lakes during the 1940s and the 1950s. (Photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey)
"We are all sensitive to the need to have the states be in the driver's seat in relation to the water," Levin said.

But James Beers, president of The American Land Rights Association, is clearly concerned the federal government is overstepping its bounds.

Beers urged the committee to scrap the bill and consider a revised version that "controls ballast water discharge, controls harmful aquatic plants and animals on the federal estate, and cooperates with the states to fulfill the fish, wildlife, and plant responsibilities assigned them in the Constitution."

"Otherwise, [this bill] will, like the Endangered Species Act, radically modify our basic freedoms while enriching only federal bureaucracies, universities, and the agendas of environmental and animal rights organizations," Beers said.

However, James Weakley, president of the Lake Carriers Association - a group that represents 11 American corporations operating some 57 vessels exclusively on the Great Lakes - told the committee aquatic invasive species "is exactly the type of problem that demands a regional and federal solution."

"Can you imagine," Weakley asked, "the complexities of trying to comply with different regulations promulgated by the eight states that share the Lakes?"