SUPERIOR, WIS. – Local researchers are about to play a much bigger role in slowing the spread of invasive species in the Great Lakes.
The University of Wisconsin-Superior is using a new $5 million federal grant to help find affordable ballast water treatments and better understand how invasive species are spread by ships.
"Because the Great Lakes are so critical and have been impacted so greatly by aquatic invasive species, we want to make sure we take a good look at all the ways the risk of ballast water discharge can be diminished," said Kelsey Prihoda, a scientist at the Lake Superior Research Institute. "This is a huge issue, and it affects so many different stakeholders in the region."
The largest ships can take on or discharge millions of gallons of ballast water to even out their loads each trip, bringing invasive species around the world. Since the 1800s, more than 185 aquatic invasive species have entered the Great Lakes, including zebra mussels and fast-growing plant species that overwhelm native vegetation and disrupt the ecosystem.
Ballast water rules have been a flash point for years as regulators, the $35 billion Great Lakes shipping industry and environmentalists battled over proposals to keep ships from bringing unwanted plants and animals to ports.
Invasive species have been hitching rides into the Great Lakes since the St. Lawrence Seaway opened to international shipping in 1959. In 2006, oversees vessels were required to dump their ballast water before they entered the Great Lakes, a move that virtually eliminated new invasive species from international ships' ballast water.
Keeping domestic ships from spreading invasive species among the lakes is the focus of the research in Superior.
"There is a better tool, perhaps, and that is treatment technology," Prihoda said. "We hope we can reduce the risk even further."
EPA officials and two congressmen visited the Montreal Pier Ballast Water Treatment System Testing Facility to announce the grant Tuesday.
"This is an economically and environmentally very important issue," said EPA Deputy Administrator Doug Benevento. "We're continuing this trend in our commitment to restoring the Great Lakes."
The $5 million funding is a major haul for a research lab that typically gets less than $1 million a year, according to Prihoda. The money is for the first year of a five-year plan that entails nearly two dozen different projects, which could include trying new treatment systems on commercial ships.
Prihoda said requiring international ships to dump ballast water is not 100% effective, and it would be safer to find a way to effectively treat the water. Many chemical, UV radiation, filtration and heat treatments exist for saltwater ballast discharge, though freshwater solutions need more research.
Lakers — ships too large to go through the locks that lead to the Atlantic Ocean — are only required to treat ballast water if they were built after 2009. Most ships were built decades ago and follow "best practices" guidelines, which will also come under review.
"The fact this money has been awarded and the project is moving forward is very good news," said Jeff Stollenwerk, the Duluth Seaway Port Authority's director of government and environmental affairs.
The research program was established by the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act of 2018, which also gave the EPA until the end of this year to finalize ballast regulations. The Coast Guard will then spend several years working to implement the rules. The ballast research in Superior is expected to influence new rules being considered.
Stollenwerk, who is chairman of the Great Waters Research Collaborative committee that will help develop the research projects, said a major point of contention for lake carriers is a numeric discharge standard — the measurable concentration of living things in discharged ballast water.
Prihoda said the research won't target a specific species but a way to eradicate all of them inside ballast tanks — or as many as possible to prevent a species from taking hold.
"What is the environmental risk associated with ballast discharge, if it has X number of organisms that are being discharged?" she said. "That is pretty fundamental science we just don't understand as well as we would like to at this point in time."