WASHINGTON – Rep. Wayne Gilchrest is among the cosponsers of a bill unveiled Friday to prevent exotic species from invading U.S. waters and killing off indigenous creatures.
The bill was announced by Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, and Rep. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio, at a day-long conference on biological pollution.
“It’s like a spider web. You touch one strand and the whole web moves,” said Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican. “You touch one thing in the ecosystem and the whole system is altered.”
Foreign organisms arrive in U.S. rivers, lakes and bays by hitching a ride in the ballast water of ocean-going ships. The water is pumped into the ships to stabilize them when they are empty or partially empty of cargo. It is usually loaded and unloaded while ships are in port.
In an effort to prevent ballast transfers of non-native species, the bill establishes a national voluntary ballast management program for all ships entering U.S. ports.
The bill authorizes $28 million annually over five years for research and development of new ballast technologies and practices. Included in that total is $3 million over five years for the Coast Guard to develop and implement guidelines.
The measure expands on a bill enacted in 1990 that authorized about $30 million annually over five years for a ballast-management program in the Great Lakes region. That voluntary program became mandatory in 1992, said Rochelle Sturtevant, a fellow on LaTourette’s staff.
According to Greg Ruiz, a zoologist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center near Edgewater, the ports of Baltimore and Norfolk are Atlantic Coast “hot spots” that receive more than 3 billion gallons of ballast water from foreign ports annually.
This combined total – most of which comes from the European ports in the northeast Atlantic and the Mediterranean – exceeds that arriving at any other U.S. Atlantic or Pacific port, Ruiz said.
In a study of more than 100 foreign ships entering the Chesapeake Bay, about 90 percent were found to have living organisms, from crabs to fish to barnacles and clams, he said.
There are about 100 known exotic species established in the Bay, he added.
One foreign invader – the zebra mussel – has wrought economic and ecological havoc in the Great Lakes region. It most likely came from ballast water picked up in Europe and has since spread down the entire Mississippi River.
Ruiz said that the arrival of the zebra mussel in the Chesapeake Bay is “imminent.”
But Ruiz was quick to add that many other organisms pose potential threats.
Ballast water can also transmit bacteria and viruses – such as human cholera – which led to 3,000 deaths in Peru in 1991. It was discovered the following year in Mobile Bay, presumably transferred from Latin American ports.
“I see that as a serious concern that’s very under-explored and deserves more attention,” Ruiz said. Gilchrest said this measure addresses one piece of a larger problem. “The large problem is protecting biodiversity,” which he said also is under assault from global warming and habitat loss. – 30 –