In 1952, a marvel of civil engineering opened in the Soviet Union: a canal linking the Volga River to the Don River, and with it the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea. The world’s largest freshwater lake was open for business.
Across the world, a similar project was underway. On the border of Canada and the United States, engineers were busy digging a series of locks and canals that would, in 1959, connect the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. However unlikely such a trip might have seemed, it was suddenly feasible to sail from what is now Kazakhstan, in the east, to Duluth, Minnesota, on westernmost point of Lake Superior, the world’s largest lake by surface area.
It’s hard to say how much cargo has traveled that route over the nearly 60 years since it became possible, but we do know of several passengers. Zebra mussels, the round goby, and the bloody-red mysid are three examples of fish native to the Caspian region that now thrive in the Great Lakes. They’re three of more than eighty species that have arrived in the Great Lakes in the ballast water of ocean-going ships. Those 80, along with invasives that have arrived by other means, cause more than $500 million in damage each year.
Balancing the ballast
How to keep invasive species out of the Great Lake is perhaps the predominant environmental concern in the region. Controlling ballast water stowaways will certainly help.
Globally, according to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), some 10 billion tonnes of ballast water are transported each year. One invasive species transported by ballast water is estimated to take hold in a new aquatic environment every nine weeks.
The IMO’s 2017 Ballast Water Management (BWM) Convention should slow the global spread of invasives, but the question of how to protect the Great Lakes is not yet settled.
The US is not a Convention signatory, for one thing. The country’s regulations on ballast water are broadly comparable to those of the IMO, but they do contain an exemption for “vessels that navigate exclusively on inland waters.” For regional environmental groups, this exemption is a big problem.
A freshwater fight
The trouble is that traffic on the Great Lakes isn’t limited to pleasure craft and an occasional ferry. More than 130 US- and Canada-flagged bulk carriers operate exclusively in the freshwater system between Lake Superior and Lake Ontario, carrying cargo between some of North America’s largest cities, like Chicago, Detroit, and Toronto. Several of these “lakers” are more than 1,000 feet long. Like their ocean-going counterparts, they maintain stability by taking on and discharging vast quantities of ballast water.
Though one might assume the ballast water in the hulls of the Great Lakes’ lakers would be fairly homogenous, a recent report from the University of Wisconsin-Superior suggests otherwise. The University—which also tests BWM systems for US Coast Guard type approval—found that ballast water in lakers could expedite the spread of invasive species already present in the region.
The report bolsters the push among environmentalists for lakers to fall under similar regulations as the oceans’ “salties.”
Industry leaders have pushed back. The Lake Carriers’ Association (LCA), an industry advocate in the United States, has called for more research, arguing that the UW-Superior report lacked a sufficient sample size. The LCA believes regulating lakers would be financially onerous, and a spokesperson claimed that the treatment chemicals used in some BWM systems could corrode the untreated steel ballast tanks that lakers use.
Recent regulations in the United States have given the EPA broader authority on BWMs, but the agency has yet to make a decision on whether to extend the lakers’ exemption. North of the border, however, regulation appears imminent. Canadian vessels currently benefit from a similar exemption as US-flagged lakers, but earlier this year, Canada proposed ballast water regulations that would “apply to Canadian vessels everywhere and vessels in waters under Canadian jurisdiction.”
US-flagged lakers might not even have to wait for the EPA, in other words. If they want to do business with Canada, it might be time to start looking at the different BWM solutions already on the market.