July 17, 2008

Great Lakes Studies on Health, Business Reveal Dim Reality: More Oversight Sought

By Dan Egan, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Jul. 17--Two separate studies released Wednesday reveal a dim reality for both the ecological health of the Great Lakes and the businesses that rely upon them.

The economic toll of the 57 invasive species that oceangoing ships have dumped into the lakes since the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959 are costing the United States alone about $200 million annually, or $2 billion per decade. That number, released by federally funded researchers at the University of Notre Dame, does not include any impacts to the Canadian economy, and only looks at the economic damage done to the lakes' fishing industry, businesses that tap the lakes for their water and the regional wildlife viewing industry.

It does not consider property-value losses tied to invasive mussel-fueled algae outbreaks or damage to inland lakes. It also does not factor in costs to states outside the Great Lakes region, a significant issue since zebra and quagga mussels have recently spilled over the Continental Divide and into California and neighboring states.

The $200 million figure might be just "the tip of the iceberg," said study author and Notre Dame professor David Lodge, who added that the tabulation is far from complete.

"There is much more economic information to uncover," he said.

A report released simultaneously by the National Research Council of the National Academies, meanwhile, says political realities mean there is no quick way to fix the problem of oceangoing ships bringing in this biological pollution.

That study panel was charged with the tough -- and potentially conflicting -- tasks of identifying options that would both enhance the potential for global trade into the Great Lakes region and eliminate invasive species introductions by ships. The study was funded by the Great Lakes Protection Fund, an endowment established by the Great Lakes governors.

The study team eliminated the option of closing the Seaway to oceangoing traffic until the freighters can figure out how to adequately sterilize their ship-steadying ballast tanks, something that has been proposed by a coalition of conservation groups.

"Although closing the Seaway to transoceanic shipping would reduce substantially the risk of aquatic invasive species introductions by vessels using the waterway, this action could not, in the committee's judgment, be implemented in a timely fashion," the report states. "Moreover, economic principles indicate that eliminating a transportation option would increase the cost of moving goods and therefore would not enhance trade."

A separate study funded by the Joyce Foundation and released in 2005 figured the increased cost of bringing in the Seaway's oceangoing cargo by some other means would be about $55 million annually. The shipping industry has criticized the report, though its authors successfully defended it before an independent panel of transportation experts, and those experts said the study provides a "good basis for policy deliberations."

The National Research Council panel disagreed.

"A single estimate with recognized limitations and imperfections is not a robust basis for informing a major policy transportation decision -- whether to close the Seaway to transoceanic vessels," it wrote.

The National Research Council panel does recommend that Seaway ships be required to do more to ensure their ballast tanks are not carrying foreign organisms. It recommends that the Canadian and U.S. governments create a more rigorous oversight program for the industry, as well as increased surveillance to identify new invaders. It also recommends development of a rapid-response program to contain new species introductions.

"In the committee's view, many of these actions could be implemented within the next two to three years, if Canada and the United States have the necessary political will," the report states.

Legislation that would require ballast-treatment systems on ships entering the Seaway has already cleared the U.S. House. A similar measure is stalled in the Senate.

Flushing stressed

One problem is the ballast treatment systems are largely still under development.

The best option at the moment, say government ballast experts, is to require all ships entering the seaway to flush their ballast tanks with saltwater in mid-ocean to kill or expel unwanted freshwater organisms. U.S. operators followed Seaway co-owner Canada's lead this year and began requiring ship operators to do just that.

Ballast experts say that measure will go a long way -- but not all the way -- toward protecting the Great Lakes from the next unwanted organism.

The Great Lakes are now home to more than 185 exotic species, and a new one is discovered with distressing regularity. The majority of invasions since the Seaway opened in 1959 are blamed on ballast water.

Notre Dame's John Rothlisberger, who co-wrote the economics study with Lodge, said it is important for decision-makers to have dollar figures to reference when they are debating what to do about the shipborne invasive species problem.

"Knowing how much a practice or behavior costs is an essential part of making sound policy decisions," he said.

An earlier version of the Notre Dame study released in May put the U.S. costs at $300 million annually. Lodge said the revised figure was the result of a more conservative means of calculating the economic impact.

"What we've provided today is the bottom (estimate)," he said.


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