Invasive species eat at Great Lakes shipping
Written by Grand Rapids Press   
Thursday, 12 January 2006 04:50

Zebra mussels and the European round goby pose little concern to Willis Kerridge, coming off one of his best fishing seasons in years. He expects his Grand Haven charter boat to attract customers from across the Midwest again next summer.

But that does not mean the captain of "Thunder Duck" turns a blind eye to invasive species that could compromise his business.

"I would like to see the government step up and take an active role in safeguarding the Great Lakes," said Kerridge, who runs his 36-foot Tiara on Lake Michigan in search of salmon and trout. "It could do a lot of things that they're not doing."

A recent study by a Grand Valley State University professor could give Great Lakes lawmakers extra ammunition in their fight to protect the lakes from critters that tag along on ships from overseas.

Through research funded by the pro-environment Joyce Foundation, GVSU professor John Taylor calculates the economic benefit of ocean shipping on the Lakes does not outweigh the environmental damage of the invaders.

Ocean shipping saves its customers $55 million in transportation costs, compared with other modes of transport, he calculated. But that savings is more than wiped out by the cost to battle zebra mussels, round gobies and other species introduced by those ships, he concluded.

The cost of dealing with those aquatic species ranges from $200 million up to $5 billion a year, he said.

The economy also has grown less dependent on those ships, which mainly carry steel in and grain out.

At 12.3 million metric tons per year, ocean vessels make up about 7 percent of Great Lakes shipping. That's down from its peak, 23.1 million metric tons, in 1978.

Little benefit here

Especially in West Michigan, where oceangoing vessels known as "salties" rarely call, shipping from the Atlantic Ocean is not a good deal, said Taylor, an associate professor of marketing.

His co-author is James Roach, a former Michigan Department of Transportation employee who is now a transportation consultant in East Lansing.

"We don't advocate closing the seaway to ocean ships, but policy makers need to take a hard look," Taylor said. "Do you want to keep having ocean ships coming in . . . for a $55 million cost-transportation benefit?

"On the one hand, it is $55 million. But in the bigger picture, it's not a very big number."

The size of that savings is exactly the beef shipping industry leaders have with Taylor's study. There is a bigger impact, and Taylor misses it, said Helen Brohl, executive director of the U.S. Great Lakes Shipping Association, based in Portage, Ind.

What about the jobs of port workers, longshoremen and the truckers who bring materials waterside for transport? Can the 11 million metric tons shipped in 2004 by salties instead be handled by railways and roadways? And if new roads and rails are needed, Brohl asks, "What's the cost of that?"

"The domino effect is going to be negative," she said. "It's a multibillion-dollar business. I can't see how it wouldn't be a multibillion-dollar impact (to end it)."

The study comes as state and federal legislators work on policies geared to limit infiltration of foreign species.

Oceangoing ships often take in water to balance themselves at sea, then dump that water later. That ballast water is how some of the 160-plus, nonnative aquatic species have entered the Great Lakes. But, Brohl said, only eight of those species have confirmed origins in oceangoing ships.

"I don't see people trying to shut down the bait industry or the aquarium industry," she said. "What we find wacky is trying to make a connection between (transportation costs) and zebra mussels."

The Michigan Senate this summer passed a bill, introduced by Sen. Patty Birkholz, R-Saugatuck Township, that starting in 2007 will require ocean ships to treat their ballast water with chemicals to kill organisms picked up at sea.

Continued invasion could destroy the Great Lakes ecosystem and deal a painful blow to West Michigan's recreational and tourism industries, Birkholz said.

"They're damaging the natural resource of the Great Lakes," she said. "The costs are huge, and they're not going to get less, they're only going to escalate."

Cost gets passed down

Birkholz said Great Lakes residents should take note because part of that cost is "just embedded in their electric bills and their water bills" when utility companies have to scrape zebra mussels off water pipes.

Dennis McKee, a Consumers Energy spokesman, said zebra mussels "have presented a challenge to plant operations in the past" by restricting water flow through intake pipes at the J.H. Campbell power plant in Ottawa County.

"Maintenance associated with defeating zebra-mussel encroachment and obstruction occurs daily at our power plants," McKee said. "Installation of equipment to keep out zebra mussels has cost us more than a million dollars."

Federal law requires incoming salties to exchange their ballast water before entering the Great Lakes through the St. Lawrence Seaway, but seawater creatures often survive in the mucky residue that remains in the ship's tanks.

Proposed federal legislation would require chemical treatment of ballast water by 2011.

U.S. Rep. Vern Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, said opposition comes from the shipping industry because ship owners "don't want to pay for treatment."

There also are other factors at play, Ehlers said, such as the limits on other transportation to export the U.S. grain harvest each fall.

"Although the economic value (of ceasing shipping) is not great, the greater need is how are you going to get the grains (exported)," Ehlers said. "The railway system in the U.S. and Canada is not great enough to carry it."

Replacement options

In his study, Taylor calculated traffic flows on the Great Lakes, then researched alternative means of transportation and the associated costs to come up with the $55 million savings.

Take away the salties, and the research suggests the tonnage could be borne by an additional 1.6 trains and 197 trucks per day, and 7.4 "lakers" ships and 1.2 million metric tons of barge traffic per year.

The capacity is there to support that increase, Taylor said.

"This will mostly shift to 'lakers,' rails and barge," he said.

That would be just fine for Larry Myers, operations manager at West Michigan Dock in Muskegon. The company in 2004 took four shipments of steel from oceangoing vessels for a special project at the Consumers Energy power plant in Ottawa County. There have not been any in 2005.

Myers said it's a nice perk to unload an overseas ship, but not if the payoff comes in higher taxes needed to pay for treatment of exotic creatures.

"When it comes in, it's good money for us, but we're not relying on that business," he said. "I would rather not see our state spend billions trying to stop invasive species."

But while West Michigan ports may not benefit much from ocean shipping, other U.S. and Canadian ports throughout the Great Lakes do have a stake in the debate.

Steve Fisher, executive director of the American Great Lakes Ports Association, said the data in Taylor's study are on target, but his analysis does not float.

He called Taylor an "academic for hire" who grossly understates the interdependence of players in the Great Lakes shipping industry.

"He has taken a very narrow look at just the transportation costs," Fisher said. "You can't just shut off part of the shipping and assume that everything else will keep humming along."

In addition to losing maritime jobs, an end to ocean shipping would affect everything from tug-boat operators to farm-equipment sales, Fisher said.

And what about farmers, he asks. A $55 million cost savings equates to about $4.50 per ton, or 12 cents per bushel. That's a "very impressive cost savings" that should not be belittled, Fisher said.

"It gives farmers in the Upper Midwest a huge advantage in shipping grain abroad," he said.

Taylor, a former member of the Michigan-Ontario Maritime Commission who insists he is no "environmental wacko," counters by arguing that oceangoing shipping makes up only 7 percent of Great Lakes tonnage through the St. Lawrence Seaway.

And since ocean shipping traffic has declined -- to 12.3 million metric tons in 2002, from 23.1 million metric tons in 1978 -- its loss would not harm the economy as much as the environmental damage from continuing shipping, and, by extension, the West Michigan economy.

Taylor also found in his study only 2 percent of all U.S. grain exports move on ocean-going ships through the Great Lakes, so he concludes the end of shipping would have a minor impact on farmers.

And aside from the economic arguments, there remains the concern about zebra mussels.

"What about new invasive species?" Taylor wonders. "Nobody knows, but scientists say we're getting about one a year."

So far, the effect of those incoming species "has been minimal" for the charter boat captain Willis, who has heard of no major boat breakdowns caused by zebra mussels.

His biggest concern about invasive species? The potential infiltration of the Asian carp, which, incidentally, comes up the Mississippi River and has nothing to do with ocean shipping on the Great Lakes.

"Certainly, if some of these Asian carp got in, that could have an adverse role," Kerridge said. "Currently, we haven't had any adverse effects.

"My bookings are every bit as good or better than they have been."

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