Hitchhiking species invading arctic
November 4, 2013

Hitchhiking Marine Species Invading Arctic Waters

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

An international team of researchers has calculated the risk of bringing in a new species to Arctic waters for the first time. According to the new survey, up to one-third of the 155 ships that entered the ports of Svalbard, Norway in 2011 came from a place that will one day have an environmental match with Svalbard. The researchers say this scenario will increase the risk that harmful species brought to foreign waters could establish themselves and eventually compete with native species.

Ships at Svalbard emptied their ballast tanks 31 times while at ports, producing enough water to fill-up about 261 Olympic-size swimming pools. This water could contain hundreds of thousands of organisms, meaning that billions of organisms could be introduced by ships each year.

"For the first time we have shown that in the future the port of departure will be more similar to the port of destination in the Arctic than it is today with regard to climate and the environment,” Chris Ware from the University of Tromsø in Norway said. “This development will increase the chance of survival for those organisms that could arrive with ballast water or through biofouling.”

Ware used the Red King Crab as an example of what new species could do. This crab has the potential to invade and thrive in the Arctic, becoming very dominant in the fragile environment and changing the balance between current species.

Researchers say that in 2050 the climate around Svalbard will be similar to the climate found in the ports to the south where ships typically depart from. By 2100, the number of matching ecoregions will increase to nine, making the number of known harmful species with connections to Svalbard grow by more than sixfold.

"We consider our results as an 'early warning' for what could happen, not just in Svalbard but also in Greenland and other parts of the Arctic" said senior researcher Mary Wisz from Aarhus University. "The next step is to find out which stowaways will have the greatest chance to survive the journey in ballast tanks or on the ship hulls, and which are most likely to establish breeding populations after arriving in the Arctic. These questions are the focus of our current research."

She said every species has its own physiological characteristics and relationship to the environment, and the warming climate is giving problematic species the advantage. However, scientists can start preparing now for what could happen in the future.

The United Nation’s International Maritime Organization (IMO) is close to enacting the Ballast Water Management Convention, which is expected to come into effect in 2015. The aim of this is to prevent, reduce and control human caused pollution of the marine environment, including the accidental introduction of harmful or alien species.