Fish virus could limit shipping
MILWAUKEE -- The shipping industry has been blamed in recent years for introducing many of the invasive species that are ravaging what's left of the Great Lakes' native fish populations, but the fight to stop the spread of the latest microscopic ...
MILWAUKEE -- The shipping industry has been blamed in recent years for introducing many of the invasive species that are ravaging what's left of the Great Lakes' native fish populations, but the fight to stop the spread of the latest microscopic invader might just threaten the monstrous freighters themselves.
Viral hemorrhagic septicemia, known as VHS, was discovered in the Great Lakes basin just last year, and already it has been blamed for the deaths of thousands of fish in the eastern Great Lakes.
The virus, which causes its victims to bleed to death, doesn't pose a danger to humans. But the potential for it to spread into the nation's other waterways so spooked the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS, that it ordered fast and drastic steps to contain it.
Three weeks ago, the agency issued an "emergency" order that blocks the live export of 37 fish species from any of the eight Great Lakes states, a potentially crippling blow to fish farmers at a time of year when they typically harvest and ship their stock. The order also threatened to snarl cooperative interstate fish stocking programs and live bait shipments that help sustain the Great Lakes' $4.5 billion fishing industry.
The federal order was blasted as overkill by the fish farming industry and the scientific community that works with it, and last week, the order was relaxed to allow some exports under a rigid set of new rules.
But now that the federal government has rung the fire bell to alert the region to the dangers of this particularly contagious virus, Michigan apparently wants more.
Specifically, the Michigan Natural Resources Commission wants the federal government to order an emergency ban on freighters filling their ballast water tanks in the virus-infected waters of Lakes Erie, Ontario and St. Clair, as well as the St. Lawrence River. The idea is to protect the virus-free Lakes Michigan, Huron and Superior.
Ballast water is necessary for freighters because it stabilizes and maintains the structural integrity of a less-than-full cargo vessel, so a prohibition against it could devastate shipping.
No ballast, no shipping
"Wow. Ships can't operate if they can't take on and discharge ballast," said Glen Nekvasil, spokesman for the Lake Carriers' Association, which represents U.S. shippers operating inside the Great Lakes, a group that moves about 125 million tons of cargo annually. "A ban on ballast uptakes would bring shipping to a halt."
The request came in a Nov. 9 resolution from the governor-appointed, bipartisan commission that oversees the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. It was forwarded to APHIS last week.
Jennifer Nalbone of the conservation group Great Lakes United, agrees that a ban on taking on ballast in VHS-infected Great Lakes waters is a draconian concept that could kill traditional shipping routes, but it doesn't surprise her.
"As far as the state's perspective, it makes total sense," she said. "They don't want their fisheries getting hammered. ... This is the reality of the Great Lakes right now -- we are contaminated with biological pollution, and it's the ships that are moving it around."
While some question whether APHIS would have jurisdiction to issue a ballast ban, APHIS spokeswoman Hallie Pickhardt said her agency's staff will be meeting with other federal agencies to evaluate the danger ballast water discharges pose in spreading the virus throughout the Great Lakes.
Jeffrey Gunderson, the associate director of the Minnesota Sea Grant College Program, is dubious.
Gunderson can't figure out what science APHIS relied upon when it issued its order on Oct. 24 banning the export of so many fish species from all the Great Lakes states, even though the western Great Lakes states have yet to be infected.
Minnesota, for example, is hundreds of miles from the nearest VHS-infected waters in Michigan. And, he said, 93 percent of the state lies outside the Great Lakes basin. Further, Gunderson said, none of Minnesota's fish farming exporters operates inside the Great Lakes basin. That means there is no natural pathway between them and the virus.
"The aquaculture industry in Minnesota is not any more of a risk of transporting the disease than those (fish farmers) in South Dakota or Iowa," he said. "The reasoning doesn't seem logical or based on science."