It just makes sense, when it comes to curbing the introduction and spread of invasives, to keep a close watch on the oceangoing vessels sailing across our Great Lakes. They're from foreign waters, after all, and foreign waters are where zebra mussels, round gobies, and other harmful critters originated before coming to the U.S. and irreparably harming, to the tune of billions, ports including Duluth-Superior.

It turns out we need to be keeping a close eye, too, on lakers, even though those big boats sail only within the Great Lakes and never venture into foreign waters. Nonetheless, they're spreading the harmful creatures, too - once they're in the Great Lakes, as the Great Waters Research Collaborative reported late last week. The collaborative is a project of the University of Wisconsin-Superior’s Lake Superior Research Institute.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

The collaborative found some of its most damning evidence right here in Duluth with the discovery in February of bloody red shrimp. The vermin had been known since 2006 to be in Lake Michigan and Lake Ontario after hitching a ride to the U.S. in the ballast tanks of oceangoing vessels. It was discovered for the first time at the western end of Lake Superior in ballast water discharged from a laker. Bloody red shrimp were among five non-native species from lakers, as documented in the study.

"Lakers (also) contribute to the spread of aquatic invasive species around the Great Lakes," Alliance for the Great Lakes President and CEO Joel Brammeier said in a statement, calling the collaborative's report the confirmation of a "common-sense assumption."

"As such," he said, "all ships operating on the Great Lakes - oceangoing and lakers - must be accountable and stop introducing and spreading the biological pollution that is invasive species."

Unfortunately, the divide is deep when it comes to how to do that. In April, according to News Tribune coverage, legislation pushed by the shipping industry called for exempting ships' ballast water from the federal Clean Water Act. Such a move could thwart years of efforts to get ship owners to treat their ballast water to prevent releasing invasive species. Ship owners prefer the authority for ballast-water regulation falls to the Coast Guard rather than the EPA, as it did before environmental groups sued for the change and won in 2006.

"While the shipping industry plays a role in the region's economy by creating jobs and moving goods, it also has a collective responsibility to operate in a way that protects the Great Lakes for all who share them," the Alliance for the Great Lakes' Jennifer Caddick wrote in a statement last week.

While the ultimate goal may be a shared one - stopping invasive species from spreading and creating even more havoc across the Great Lakes, and in a way that doesn't cripple shipping and industry - environmental groups, shipowners, government agencies, and others aren't working together toward an equitable, effective solution.

That has to change. They need to - before the next invasive catches a ride here on an oceangoing vessel and then cruises the Great Lakes aboard lakers.