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Federal Panel Including Dobbs Issues Invasive Species Report

Fred Dobbs

A panel of experts including marine microbial ecologist Fred Dobbs of Old Dominion University has issued a report recommending a 10-year program of research to establish just how rigorous the standards should be that protect U.S. waters from potentially invasive species that arrive in the ballast water of oceangoing ships.

The National Academies/National Research Council report was issued after a year of deliberations by an 11-person committee convened at the request of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard. Those two federal entities are in the process of creating new standards to regulate the concentrations of living organisms discharged in ballast water.

Later this summer, the EPA is expected to report the results of a complementary study of treatment systems that can be used to remove or kill organisms in ships' ballast tanks. Dobbs is the only scientist to have participated in both studies.

A professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences at ODU, Dobbs is an expert in the ecology of microorganisms in ships' ballast water. He was part of a research team several years ago that produced "best operating practices" that shipping companies could adopt in order to minimize ballast water risks in the Great Lakes.

The latest report from the National Academies-administered panel on which Dobbs served was issued early in June. It notes that ballast water regulators assume that the higher the concentration of organisms in ballast water, the greater the chance that a successful invasion can take place. "Although there is strong support for such a relationship, determining the exact number of organisms that could be expected to launch a new population is complex," states a summary of the report released by the National Research Council.

"Establishing an initial benchmark to reduce concentrations of organisms in ballast water below current levels, and then selecting various risk-release models to analyze much-needed experimental and field-based data would help inform future decisions about ballast water discharge standards."

The summary points out that currently there are no regular monitoring programs in place to measure invasions in the nation's waterways, nor to measure organism density in ballast water.

The two-track approach recommended by the panel of experts would include experiments by scientists to estimate the effect of organism density on the ability of new species to establish themselves in U.S. waters. "If these experiments are pursued aggressively, results could be obtained in three to five years," according to the summary.

A second track would involve the gathering of field-based data that could inform the computer models and provide validation for the results obtained from experiments. The experts recommended that data be collected from several bodies of water and specifically mentioned the Chesapeake Bay, San Francisco Bay and Tampa Bay.

At each location, according to the experts, measurements should begin soon of organism density in the ballast of incoming ships and of the invasion rate for each organism that is studied. These measurements should be made repeatedly over a minimum of 10 years, the experts recommended.

"It's simultaneously exciting and daunting to tackle a problem this challenging," Dobbs said when he was appointed to the panel last year. "The implications for ecological security are huge, of course, but they must be considered in light of operations of the shipping industry, which is of enormous importance to our national economy and indeed, the world's."

Federal regulations for ballast water apply to fresh waters frequented by ships, as well as to estuaries and coastal U.S. waters. The panel of experts reported that commercial shipping vessels make more than 90,000 visits to U.S. waterways each year. They bring not only cargo but also ballast water that was taken in from coastal port areas where they began their journeys. The ballast provides stability during transit, but is released when the ship reaches its destination.

Dumped with the water can be a variety of aquatic organisms, ranging from microscopic plants and animals to mussels, crabs and even schools of fish.

"Increasing world trade and a growing global shipping fleet composed of larger and faster vessels, combined with a series of prominent ballast-mediated invasive species outbreaks over the past two decades, have prompted national and international interest in the management of ballast water," the report summary states.

This article was posted on: June 21, 2011

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