Ballast water management protects Washington from aquatic invasive species

Ballast water management plays an important role in protecting Washington’s waters from harmful invasive species. Often outside the public eye, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) vessel inspectors and operations and data staff work hard to reduce the chances of aquatic invasive species entering our waters through ballast water — the additional weight large ships take on for stabilization.

“Most vessel crews have good intentions and are doing their best to comply with Washington state regulations,” said Amanda Newsom, WDFW’s ballast water and biofouling biologist. “When our inspectors board, they ensure that vessels are in compliance, and are also an incredible resource to provide technical assistance.”

The Ballast Water and Biofouling Section of WDFW’s Aquatic Invasive Species Unit leads these ballast water management efforts. Continue reading or email ballastwater@dfw.wa.gov for more information.

Tugboat discharging ballast water. Photo by W.carter / Public Domain.

Potential spread of aquatic invasive species

Before we learn more about the important work WDFW does, let’s explore why aquatic invasive species (AIS) are so concerning.

An AIS is a freshwater or marine organism that has been introduced beyond its native range and is either causing harm or may cause harm to environmental, economic, or human resources. Throughout history, there are many examples of the destructive impacts AIS have caused. One that is very relevant to Washington is the European green crab (EGC), which was first detected here in 1998.

In the 1800s, it is thought that the ballast water of ships brought invasive EGC from Europe to North America. These critters eventually went on to harm both the environment and economies of eastern North America, including contributing to the collapse of Maine’s soft shell clam industry and the destruction of important marine habitats.

In the 1900s, EGC reached the West Coast, again possibly transported in the ballast water of ships. From here, they floated their way up to Washington on longshore currents, where we are now seeing a concerning increase in EGC populations in several coastal bays. Many are concerned about the damage this invasive shore crab could do to the marine environment, shellfish industry, and tribal and cultural resources.

If you find a suspected European green crab or its shell in Washington, report it as soon as possible using the form on the European green crab identification and information page. To learn more about Washington’s efforts to control EGC, visit the WDFW EGC Hub.

Cooler of invasive European green crabs, which have been transported around the globe in ballast water.

WDFW’s ballast water management efforts

As we are already dealing with EGC and other AIS, the last thing we need is another. WDFW’s ballast water management program reduces the risk of other AIS reaching Washington waters and helps vessels comply with Washington laws and regulations.

“As a Coast Guardsman monitoring oil spills, I learned ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,’” said Keith Strieck, one of WDFW’s ballast water vessel inspectors. “Ballast water, a prime vector for AIS, is best managed by using this approach.”

All vessels intending to discharge ballast water within Washington state waters are required to manage their ballast water in a way that prevents the spread of AIS. Vessels can either empty their ballast water out at sea*, somewhere any potential AIS are unlikely to survive, or vessels can treat their ballast water with an approved ballast water treatment system.

The approved treatment systems usually include a filtration step and either a physical or chemical treatment step. The filtration step removes AIS by filtering the ballast water and is the most likely point of failure in the system. Thus, it is best practice to also treat ballast water via physical or chemical treatment. Physical treatment includes the use of ozone, electrical currents, or ultraviolet radiation to kill AIS in ballast water. Chemical treatment uses specially designed formulas or a form of chlorination that kill AIS. After use, any chemical treatment needs to be neutralized to ensure the water is safe for marine life.

WDFW Ballast Water Vessel Inspector Keith Strieck inspecting a large vessel.

Ballast water management inspections

To help vessels comply with ballast water laws and regulations, WDFW inspects vessels and provides information to help bring ships into compliance. WDFW has two ballast water vessel inspectors dedicated to this task. All out of state vessels coming into the Puget Sound, Grays Harbor, and the Columbia River are subject to their oversight.

“I enjoy meeting crews from around the world,” said Gary Gertsen, a WDFW ballast water vessel inspector. “I let them know that I am here to help make sure that they have complied with the regulations, but also that I am willing to listen to how they best achieve that goal.”

Every working day, a WDFW Inspector examines ballast water management records for incoming vessels, evaluates compliance with Washington state laws, and sometimes takes ballast water samples which are evaluated for AIS. Inspectors may examine documentation and equipment related to installed ballast water treatment technology.

Based off their findings, inspectors prioritize vessels to board and inspect. WDFW staff prioritize ships that have never visited Washington before and those that have had past compliance issues. Aboard the ship, inspectors will review onboard documentation, speak with the crew, and may observe operation of the ballast water management system.

“Vessel crews, owners, operators, and shipping agents are actively invited to ask us questions and work with us to protect Washington’s waters from aquatic invasive species,” added Newsom, WDFW ballast water and biofouling biologist. “We are here to help.”

Vessels must also comply with all applicable federal ballast water management rules. WDFW works closely with the United States Coast Guard Marine Safety Center on ballast water management.

Laws and regulations

WDFW is responsible for implementing state ballast water laws under Chapter 77.120 RCW and Chapter 220–650 WAC. These laws and rules apply to all vessels that are 300 gross tons or more, domestic and foreign, and capable of carrying ballast water into state waters after operating outside of the waters of the state. Some vessels may be operating under a waiver and have specific rules regarding their compliance.

Visit WDFW’s ballast water webpage for more information about complying with these regulations.

*Generally vessels conducting a ballast exchange during an ocean crossing must do so at least 200 nautical miles offshore in waters at least 2,000 meters deep. Vessels conducting an exchange during a coastal voyage must do so at least 50 nautical miles offshore in waters at least 200 meters deep.

WDFW Ballast Water Vessel Inspector Keith Strieck inspecting U.S. Coast Guard vessels in the field.

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.