Wisconsin DNR Announces Start of State Ballast Water Regulation of Great Lakes Ships

MADISON – Wisconsin will start regulating oceangoing ships arriving in its Great Lakes waters at the start of the next shipping season, Feb. 1, 2010, to stop the flow of invasive species arriving in their ballast water.

“We can’t afford to wait any longer for the federal government to turn off the tap,” said Department of Natural Resources Secretary Matt Frank. “The threat is too great and the cost too high for our Great Lakes waters and our inland lakes and streams.”

Ballast water is the main source of harmful new aquatic invaders to the Great Lakes and Wisconsin’s inland waters. Wisconsin joins New York, Michigan and Minnesota in regulating ballast water. Along with New York, Wisconsin will have some of the toughest standards in the Great Lakes.

“This isn't just a regulatory action -- our goal is to be a catalyst as well,” Frank said. “We are pushing treatment technology forward by setting a numerical standard the ballast water must meet.”

Through Wisconsin’s participation in the Great Ships Initiative and work with other Great Lakes states, we are supporting the development of innovative technology that will provide the greatest level of protection possible against aquatic invasives being released from ballast water discharges, Frank said.

More information about the requirements, factsheets and other materials can be found online in the Ballast Water Discharge General Permit.

State to issue own general permit with treatment standard

Large ships take on and release “ballast” water at ports to steady themselves and compensate for changes in cargo weights as they are loaded and unloaded. Ballast water releases spread invasives throughout the Great Lakes, where they eventually move to inland waters.

DNR is issuing a general permit that will require large commercial vessels to take basic steps right away to reduce the risk of spreading invasive species. They must follow best management practices for handling ballast tank sediment, seawater, and certain other substances. These requirements apply to both oceangoing ships, the so-called “salties,” and “lakers,” the big ships that travel between Great Lakes ports.

Starting January 1, 2012, new oceangoing ships also must treat their ballast water to reduce the number of live plants, animals and organisms in it to meet specific numerical standards. The Wisconsin standard is 100 times more restrictive than the level set by the International Maritime Organization or IMO. Existing oceangoing ships have until 2014 to retrofit to meet the same standard.

The shipping industry is already well on its way to developing the technologies needed to meet Wisconsin’s standard, Frank noted. California has approved six new treatment processes that significantly reduce the threat of spreading invasives through salt water ballast. Wisconsin, other Great Lakes states, the federal government and the shipping industry have jointly supported the Great Ships Initiative, a research effort designed to find the most cost-effective treatment technology for fresh water shipping on the Great Lakes. During the next year, the DNR will be reviewing and monitoring technology developments, with input from an advisory committee that will include representatives from environmental organizations, the shipping industry and other stakeholders. If the DNR determines by Dec. 31, 2010, that no commercial treatment technology is available to meet the 100 times IMO standard, the IMO standard will apply.

Gov. Jim Doyle’s 2009-11 budget, as passed by the Wisconsin Legislature, included authority for the DNR to collect a reasonable permit fee to fund three specialists to help shippers obtain permits and comply with the standards.

“We still support national action -- a single high standard for all the Great Lakes -- as the best solution to protect our waters,” Frank said. “But while we continue to work toward that national solution, we must take action now to give our Great Lakes, our 15,000 inland lakes and 44,000 miles of streams the protection they deserve.”

Key to curbing inland invasions, and success in other efforts

Dealing with ballast water is critical because it gets at the root cause of inland invasives problems, and is one of many measures DNR and partners are taking to deal with aquatic invasive species. Other efforts have included, Frank said:

• $4.3 million in DNR grants available annually to local communities for aquatic invasive species prevention and control
• $10.5 million in DNR grants since 2003 to local communities for aquatic invasive species prevention and control
• 54,000 watercraft inspections in 2008, mostly by Clean Boats, Clean Waters volunteers -- Over 40,000 inspections recorded in 2009 thus far. ~50 youth (young adults) watercraft inspectors entered the workforce using federal stimulus funding and partnering with Department of Workforce Development.
• 33,000 hours spent educating boaters at landings in 2008 -- Over 23,000 hours recorded in 2009 thus far; 90 percent of boaters say they were aware of invasive species laws and 93% claim to remove plants from their rig and drain all water before leaving
• 9 Water Guard conservation wardens created an enforcement presence at boat landings
• 31 counties actively partnering with the state to prevent and control the spread of aquatic invasive species -- also working with Tribes and many local units of government
• More than 1,000 local lake, river and watershed organizations formed, many to fight invasive species.

Environmental damage and economic cost of invasive species staggering

More than 180 nonnative fish, plants, insects and organisms have entered the Great Lakes since the early 1800s, with ballast water discharges responsible for an estimated 55-70 percent of them since the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959 and allowed oceangoing ships to traverse the Great Lakes, according to a 2008 report by The National Academies of Science.

The estimated cost of controlling these aquatic invaders totals up to $9 billion a year in the United States, according to Cornell University’s David Pimental.

Zebra mussels alone, which arrived in the Great Lakes via ballast water in the late1980s, cost U.S. taxpayers up to $5 billion dollars annually. In Wisconsin, they have spread from Lake Michigan to 120 inland waters, where they are hurting fish populations by disrupting the food chain, helping fuel toxic blue-green algae blooms in inland waters and also smelly Cladphora algae accumulations on Lake Michigan shorelines, and littering beaches with their sharp shells.

A recent example shows the wide-ranging effect and steep costs incurred fighting new invasive species and diseases. The discovery of VHS fish disease in the Lake Winnebago system in spring 2007, a disease that can infect up to 38 different game fish species and cause them to bleed to death, not only led to new, wide ranging regulations for anglers, bait harvesters and many others, but cost DNR’s fisheries management program more than $1.3 million in the first year alone and continue to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.

The response included testing, monitoring, outreach and education, reassigning fish production and quarantining of fish hatcheries. Some costs can’t be measured, such as the number of anglers who didn’t fish because of VHS being present and the loss of native fish in the waters of the state.

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Editor’s NOTE: The U.S. Coast Guard has announced its proposed ballast water standard in late August, and has been holding hearings ever since on the matter. Long awaited by a host of maritime stakeholders here and abroad, the first phase of the proposed rule also falls short of certain local standards already in place, but provides general agreement with an International Maritime Organization (IMO) standard that has been in place since 2004. Nevertheless, the Coast Guard proposal represents progress and provides clear guidance to ship owners who were previously reluctant to do much of anything in the absence of any standard on this side of the pond.