Some ships could lose lake access
Written by Detroit Free Press   
Thursday, 30 December 2004 15:01
Stowaway ballast pests threatening freshwater life.? Biological anarchy in the Great Lakes has a growing chorus of scientists and policymakers exploring a radical, simple solution: Ban all oceangoing cargo ships.
Organisms carried across the Atlantic Ocean in freighters' ballast water account for almost 80 percent of the 179 invasive species that have thrown the lakes' ecosystems into chaos, researchers say.

Measures to stop the invaders have been unsuccessful: 20 new species including the voracious zebra mussel have been documented in the past 20 years, and the pace has accelerated to one every eight months, say biologists.

"Non-Great Lakes boats frankly should be banned from entering the Great Lakes," Milt Clark, senior health and research adviser with the Environmental Protection Agency's Chicago regional office, said at an environmental journalism seminar in Pittsburgh in October.

The idea picked up steam this week when Gary Fahnenstiel, senior ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Muskegon field station, said much the same thing, and federal political leaders agreed it was worth examining.

"This is one of the most straightforward problems to solve," Fahnenstiel said. "We have a natural choke point, and we can shut off the flow of exotics into the Great Lakes."

Such a ban might include stopping saltwater freighters from using the Welland Canal, the link between Lake Ontario -- where ocean-going ships arrive via the St. Lawrence Seaway -- and the other Great Lakes. They might even be stopped farther upstream in Montreal. Cargo would be unloaded onto trucks, trains or Great Lakes container ships for the freshwater legs of the journeys.

Shipping industry officials warned that the economic impact of such a drastic move could hurt Midwest industries that rely on foreign goods, including steel used by Detroit's automakers. Roughly 3,000 vessels carrying 40 million tons of cargo pass through the canal annually.

No one knows whether the additional costs would be crippling to industry, said Jim Weakley, president of the Lake Carriers Association, which represents Great Lakes shipping interests.

"It's a complicated issue, and I'm always suspicious of simple solutions," Weakley said. But he supports a study to gauge the impact of such a ban.

The problem starts when nonnative freshwater organisms are sucked into ships that take on ballast water in Europe for stability.

Even when the freshwater is exchanged for saltwater in the ocean -- a requirement for Great Lakes-bound ships since 1993 -- many of the critters survive in the muck at the bottom of the tanks. When ships dump ballast water into the Great Lakes, some organisms are spewed out and gain a foothold.

They range from sea lamprey to microscopic planktons. Zebra mussels, one of the most recognizable invaders, have clogged intake pipes of municipal water systems and are the suspected cause of toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie and Saginaw Bay.

Banning saltwater ships from the Great Lakes would also require agreement with Canada -- the United States' partner in managing international boundary waters like the Great Lakes.

Gail Krantzberg, director of the Detroit regional office of the International Joint Commission -- the agency governing binational agreements over Great Lakes waters -- said she favors a ban.

"We shouldn't be having the salties coming into the Great Lakes," she said at the Pittsburgh conference. "There are intermodal modes of transportation we should promote."

U.S. Rep. Vern Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, said he would support a study of the ban.

"We have an $18-billion fishery in the Great Lakes, and we have to balance out all the economics and environmental issues," he said Tuesday. "I think it would be very tough to ban them, but it's a good thing to talk about, even if for no other reason than to bring the shipping companies to the table."
 
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