Last week Canada issued new rules requiring all vessels stopping at Canadian ports to have ballast water treatment systems in place by 2030. While this may seem like a niche issue, reports have shown us that ships contribute to the introduction and spread of destructive aquatic invasive species through the discharge of ballast water. Once species such as zebra and quagga mussels set up camp, they devastate the natural food chain and can lead to dangerous algae growth, which causes substantial environmental and economic harm to the Great Lakes and waters all across the country.
Under the new Canadian rules, it is estimated the spread of invasive species at Canadian Great Lakes ports will be reduced by 82 percent. The rules also have the potential to bring in an estimated $980 million in economic benefits. Given that costs to comply are about $280 million, that amounts to an impressive 3.5 to 1 benefit/cost ratio.
We applaud Canada for taking action. But it is imperative that the U.S. EPA moves quickly to implement similarly strong ballast water standards on board all ships stopping at U.S. ports on the Great Lakes in order to help mitigate the spread and harmful impact of aquatic invasive species — otherwise they will continue to threaten the health of our ecosystems.
In 2018, the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (VIDA) directed the U.S. EPA to issue rules establishing national standards for ballast water treatment to help protect the environment and surrounding communities from invasive species that might be released or transported from vessels. Unfortunately the rule released by the U.S. EPA in October 2020 arbitrarily excluded “lakers” — ships that transit solely within Great Lakes waterways — from regulation.
The exclusion of lakers is problematic given that ballast water discharged from these ships account for over 95 percent of ballast water volumes transferred in the Great Lakes. Lakers are just one piece of the puzzle, but they should be regulated in the same way as vessels coming from overseas.
Canada got this right. So far, the U.S. has not. The Great Lakes are a shared responsibility, and invasive species don’t stick to only Canadian or U.S. waters.
Like our northern neighbor, the U.S. should be protected by a federal ballast program that prevents the introduction and spread of aquatic invasive species and pathogens. Strong enforcement of VIDA rules will be critical. The Alliance for the Great Lakes is calling on the U.S. EPA to withdraw its proposed rule that excluded “lakers” from regulation and to initiate a new rulemaking process that is protective of the Great Lakes and waters all across the country.
Ultimately, unwavering commitments from both the U.S. and Canada to address ballast water impacts are necessary if we hope to have any success in keeping harmful invasive species at bay and ensuring the vitality of the Great Lakes for future generations. The U.S. has a long history of binational cooperation with Canada when it comes to protecting the Great Lakes. Canada has held up its end of the bargain; now it’s time for the U.S. EPA to do the same.
Molly M. Flanagan is the Chief Operating Officer and Vice President for Programs at the Alliance for the Great Lakes.