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How Ballast Water is Affecting the Maritime Industry and Marine Environment Today

Ballast water is one of the most prominent topics in the maritime industry today. It spans the shipping industry, the environmental community, and the actions of maritime industry policymakers. Because it is so far reaching, it is important to understand not only what ballast water is, but how it affects the marine environment and maritime industry.

Ballast water is sea water that ships take on and store in their ballast tanks in order to improve balance, stability, and trim. The water is taken in along the coastal waters at the start of the voyage, and is adjusted along the way as cargo is loaded and unloaded. The issue with this water, however, is that it can contain organisms that are not native to the environment in which they are released. If this nonnative species begins to out-compete the native species, it is then deemed invasive. As defined by the Nonindigenous Aquatic Nuisance Prevention and Control Act of 1990, invasive species are “non-indigenous species that threaten the diversity or abundance of native species, the ecological stability of infested waters, and/or any commercial, agricultural, via aquaculture, or recreational activities dependent on such waters”. Invasive species are particularly dangerous in water systems as they can easily spread to other water sources, affecting the ecosystem, as well as human resources, health, economy, and the maritime industry.

There are many instances where ballast water has been directly linked with invasive species, but two of the most prominent cases center on zebra mussels and Asian Shore Crabs. Zebra mussels are native to Eastern Europe, but were brought to the Baltic Sea and American Great Lakes areas by ballast water on ships. These mussels are highly invasive as they can attach to any hard surface, thus displacing native mollusks and blocking irrigation and water intake pumps. The cost of zebra mussels in the US alone is estimated to have been between $750 million and $1 billion between 1989 and 2000. Asian Shore Crabs originate along the coastlines of Japan and China, but are now present along the US Atlantic Coast. These crabs are a “opportunistic omnivore” meaning that they prey on anything available, and are also highly reproductive which allows them to out-compete many of the other crab species along the Atlantic. These invasives illustrate both the negative impacts of ballast water on the marine environment as well as their negative economic impact on coastal or water based communities.

Recently, the widespread negative effects of ballast water have been headlining maritime industry news, and in response the IMO has enacted more stringent regulations on how ballast water must be handled by ships. Currently, there are two standards of ballast water treatment, D1 and D2. D1 regulations require ships to discharge ballast water in open seas, at least 200 nautical miles from shore in water that is at least 200m deep. D1 regulations also require ships to carry a ballast water plan on board, detailing how the ship will follow the regulations as well as a record of when ballast water was taken on board, discharged, or treated. Most ships currently operating on the water follow only D1 regulations, but the IMO has implemented a plan to phase all ships to D2 regulations, which are stricter and set limits on the amount of specific indicator microbes that can be discharged, by 2024.

Phasing into new regulations is putting stress on many shipowners and shipping companies, because though there are around a hundred ballast water treatment systems available on the market, only six of these systems are approved by the IMO. This makes it difficult for shipowners to adopt systems that both satisfy IMO regulations and fit the specificities of their ships. The US Coast Guard in particular has placed special emphasis on ships having “USCG type-approved ballast water management systems or an approved Alternative Management System (AMS). After five years, the AMS must either achieve USCG type-approval or be replaced with a type-approved system” (Ship-Technology). These guidelines are being strictly enforced on both US flag ships as well as foreign ships that operate in US waters. Though the IMO is less strict, it is clear that the world recognizes the dangers of ballast water.

Ballast water not only affects the maritime industry, but the lives of everyday citizens as well. At NAMEPA, we strive to bridge the gap between the public and the maritime industry in advocating for and educating on maritime industry best practices. The international response to ballast water illustrates how the gap between industry regulations and public impact is growing smaller, and how cooperation is vital to Save Our Seas.



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