The first saltwater ship of the 2016 season is expected to enter the Twin Ports within the next week or two, likely to pick up some grain.

But it’s what that oceangoing freighter won’t be dropping off that has spurred excitement among scientists and regulators.

After a decades-long stream of foreign invaders that hitchhiked across the oceans in the ballast of salties, the Great Lakes haven’t seen a confirmed new aquatic invasive species since 2006. That’s either a string of good luck or some evidence that a U.S. Coast Guard-enforced program requiring ships to flush their ballast at sea is working.

“It’s really remarkable considering what had been happening,” said Doug Jensen, aquatic invasive species expert for Minnesota Sea Grant in Duluth. “I don’t think it’s luck. There are a lot of (scientists for multiple agencies) out looking, especially in the Duluth-Superior harbor, that I’m pretty confident that if something new was established here, they would have found it.”

It’s a startling reversal of fortune for the Great Lakes, which saw 185 foreign species invade over the last century. Since the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959, allowing unfettered access to the Great Lakes by oceangoing ships, more than half of the new species are believed to have arrived in ships’ ballasts.

Those species have cost hundreds of millions of dollars in expenses, especially zebra mussels, and caused untold damage to ecosystems, including extinctions of native species and altering natural food chains. Ruffe from Europe have been the most numerous fish caught in test nets in the Duluth-Superior harbor for nearly three decades. In Lake Michigan, quagga mussels and spiny water fleas are shocking the food chain, causing a crash in small baitfish like alewives that are the primary food source for salmon and trout.

A decade ago researchers were finding a new species in the Great Lakes on average every 28 weeks - from goby and ruffe to quagga mussels, bloody red shrimp and the fish-killing VHS virus.

U.S. regulators in 1993 suggested a ballast water exchange program, nicknamed “swish-and-spit” after the dentist office maneuver. The exchange became mandatory in both U.S. and Canadian waters in 2006.

Coast Guard enforcement

Under the regulation, ships fill their ballast tanks far out at sea, in heavily salty water, to kill any living organism that might thrive in freshwater ports. They then release that ballast before entering the Great Lakes system. That blast of saltwater shocks the freshwater species and kills most.

It’s those freshwater species from other continents that can thrive and wreak ecological and economic havoc in the freshwater ports and estuaries across the Great Lakes - if they make it here alive. Supporters say swish-and-spit is killing up to 98 percent of the freshwater organisms hiding in ballast tanks

The swish-and-spit requirement to enter the Great Lakes may sound trite, and it may fall short of onboard treatment, but Coast Guard officials in charge of enforcement say it’s the most stringent ballast water management regulation in the world.

The Great Lakes Ballast Water Working Group recently released its report for 2015 saying 100 percent of vessels bound for the Great Lakes Seaway from outside North America received a ballast water management exam. The inspection effort looked at 8,361 ballast tanks on the 455 vessels that entered the lakes.

The “saltwater flushing, detailed documentation requirements, increased inspections and civil penalties provide a comprehensive regulatory enforcement regime to protect the Great Lakes Seaway system,” the report noted.

“The results have been quite remarkable,” said Craig Middlebrook, deputy administrator of the Washington, D.C.-based St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp., at a Duluth symposium last week. “To get to 100 percent inspection rate, that’s something.”

Federal treatment approval near 

Even with swish-and-spit apparently helping, U.S. and Canadian regulators have not backed off requirements for onboard ballast water treatment methods to further protect against any species surviving in ballast tanks.

The effort to draft ballast rules and set parameters started in 2008 in the U.S. after courts ruled the Clean Water Act should apply to ships’ ballast - that they must comply with the same permitting rules to discharge in waterways that companies and sewage treatment plants are regulated under.

That next level of protection is on its way for the 12,000 saltwater ships that enter all U.S. waters annually. The Coast Guard and Environmental Protection Agency are about to finalize, yet this year, exactly what technologies they will approve to kill organisms in ballast tanks. Globally, the International Maritime Organization is doing the same, through a treaty, although that process has moved much slower. Globally there are some 70,000 ships to deal with.

The onboard systems likely to be approved include chemicals, ultraviolet light, filters or a combination of technologies to kill any critters in the tanks. The goal, as mandated by a specific kill rate, isn’t to stop 100 percent of living organisms - that’s considered impossible - but instead reduce their numbers so much that any survivors couldn’t establish a colony in a new home port.

“The question of ‘Do we have to do this?’ is long gone,” Middlebrook said, praising the work of a joint U.S.-Canadian group that has collaborated to get all sides onboard with ballast treatment. “It’s now ‘How are we going to do this and when?’ ”

The rules phase in the installation requirement depending on when a ship is scheduled for a major dry-dock overhaul. But that could take until 2021 by some estimates, a schedule that’s too long for some. 

It’s not just the timing, but also the details of the federal rules that environmental groups challenge. Both the Coast Guard and EPA rules adopt the proposed IMO standard for killing living organisms inside ballast. But critics say that standard is too weak and that many tiny critters could still pass through. California’s state ballast standard, for example, is 100 times stricter than the IMO standard.

Shipping interests say there is simply no verifiable technology available to meet the California standard.

Estimates are that it will cost about $500,000 to install ballast treatment on new ships - perhaps double that to retrofit existing freighters.

Compared to the cost of trying to restore the environment and remove invaders, the cost of treatment “in terms of prevention, is a great investment,” said Lana Pollack, chairman of the U.S. half of the International Joint Commission, the U.S.-Canadian agency that settles border disputes and issues.

Sea Grant’s Jensen notes that it will only take one early adopter to install a system that’s approved and works to set the industry into motion.

“As soon as you see that, all the other companies will follow,” he said.

So far, among ships that visit the Great Lakes, only Quebec-based Fednav has installed onboard systems in their newest ships as standard equipment. The Federal Biscay is the first of 12 new ships that will be constructed with the BallastAce treatment system built-in as the Canadian ship owner moves to upgrade its fleet. The 34,500-ton freighter is designed to haul bulk cargo like grain from Great Lakes ports to destinations worldwide and is sized to fit through Great Lakes system locks.

The BallastAce system uses both high-capacity filters and a sodium hypochlorite bleach injection mechanism in the ship’s ballast system. It’s intended to work in both freshwater and saltwater to kill most living organisms in the ballast water before it’s released as ships take on cargo. 

The Federal Biscay will make its first Great Lakes voyage when the St. Lawrence Seaway opens in coming weeks. In addition to Duluth-Superior, the Federal Biscay will likely visit ports such as Burns Harbor, Ind., Milwaukee, Cleveland and Detroit, as well as Windsor, Hamilton and Thunder Bay in Ontario. 

Fednav’s early adopter move is a bit of a gamble as they don’t know yet if BallastAce will be among the technologies approved by the Coast Guard. But the company isn’t looking back, and is moving ahead despite lingering claims from other shipping interests that ballast treatment remains unproven or too expensive. 

“This is a pivotal step in protecting the Great Lakes against invasive species and preserving biodiversity in the region,” said Paul Pathy, president and co-CEO of Fednav Limited, when the company announced the new system in October. “Fednav is proud to be the first shipping company to deploy such systems, and we are pleased that the Federal Biscay is serving as a test ship for this technology.” 

Minnesota, Wisconsin will regulate lakers

Globally, and even among the U.S. regulators, virtually all attention is focused on saltwater freighters. But at least two states also are looking at freighters that never leave the Great Lakes, noting those boats move millions of gallons of ballast water between infested ports every year and are a likely pathway to spread invaders - especially in and out of Duluth-Superior, by far the busiest of Great Lakes’ ports.

Great Lakes shipping interests say their big boats handle too much ballast water too fast for treatment to work. They also note that they are responsible for zero new species entering the lakes.

Still, both Minnesota and Wisconsin have rules on the books to apply the IMO standards to Great Lakes freighters, called lakers, but not until 2018. At that point, owners of lakers will be required to install some sort of treatment technology that will meet IMO standards when their boat’s first dry-dock after 2018. With dry-docks required about every five years, that means all lakers entering Wisconsin and Minnesota waters will likely have ballast treatment installed by 2023.

But there’s an exception.

“Our permit, as of October 2013, requires them to meet IMO standards … or convince us that it’s not possible for them to meet it,” said Jeff Stollenwerk, water quality permit unit manager for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in Duluth. “Short of that, the requirement is in the permit. The expectation is that they (lakers) will have to meet the standard.”

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