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Researchers from Old Dominion University will receive a portion of a $1.1 million grant to protect the Great Lakes from invasions of nuisance species and human pathogens transported in cargo ships' ballast tanks.

Fred Dobbs, associate professor of oceanography, and Martina Doblin, a self-supporting research professor in the Department of Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, will represent Old Dominion in the project.

Their role will be to analyze water and sediment samples for their microbiological constituents and assess the potential for harm to the Great Lakes.

Dobbs and Doblin will perform their analyses principally at Old Dominion - they have already begun work on material collected aboard one cargo ship -- but will participate in the sampling and the experiments to be performed in the Great Lakes in March when the St. Lawrence Seaway is opened by icebreakers.

The effort is led by the Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystem Research of Ann Arbor, Mich., and the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The funds, awarded by the Governors' Great Lakes Protection Fund (GLPF), will support the first project to focus specifically on the aquatic animals, plants and human pathogens entering the Great Lakes in the tanks of vessels declaring "no ballast on board" (NOBOB).

These vessels are an overlooked and possibly underestimated pathway for invasive species introductions into the Great Lakes. Recent studies estimate that more than 90 percent of the vessels entering the St. Lawrence Seaway, the main route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes, declare NOBOB and therefore escape regulation under existing federal, state and provincial laws.

This project will determine the threats that NOBOB vessels pose to the Great Lakes and examine the effectiveness of ballast water management practices on short-circuiting this pathway for biological invasions.

Researchers from the University of Michigan, the University of Windsor, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and NOAA worked in cooperation with shipping firms, port agents and shipping associations and policy experts on the project.

"The US Great Lakes Shipping Association is pleased that such an important project has received full funding support," stated Helen A. Brohl, the association's executive director. "We have always believed that a solid baseline of scientific information was necessary to address this issue properly and the Great Lakes international maritime industry is pleased to work with the project scientists to accumulate the needed data."

The Great Lakes Protection Fund was created by the governors of the Great Lakes states in 1989. The world's first ecosystem endowment, the fund supports regional efforts to restore the health of the Great Lakes ecosystem.

Since its inception, the fund has provided more than $34 million in support of regional projects. The fund has also provided more than $27 million in support to its member states for grant making programs that focus on local priorities.

As part of the program, scientists will ride across the Atlantic on cargo ships, observing ballasting practices and testing for living organisms. Ballast tanks are large chambers that can be flooded with water to allow ships to travel safely when empty of cargo.

When a ship loads cargo, it pumps out the water from its ballast tanks. However, nearly all vessels cannot pump out all of their ballast and some unpumpable water, sediment and biological matter is left behind.

The project team will sample the residual material in the bottom of reportedly "empty" tanks and characterize the organisms present.

Next, the team will determine which organisms are likely to survive and perhaps thrive if ballast residuals are mixed with new ballast water and discharged into the Great Lakes. For the first time, researchers will determine the importance of "resting" stages produced by some species -- reproductive material that can remain dormant in the mucky bottoms of "empty" ballast tanks but reemerge as an active life form when flushed out into a Great Lakes port.

The project team will assess the effectiveness of flushing the ballast tanks during open sea voyages as a means of reducing the number of viable creatures and harmful pathogens discharged into the Great Lakes.

This grant increases the protection fund investment in preventing biological pollution to $3.5 million. Other initiatives supported by the fund include the first installation of filtration technology on a working Great Lakes vessel, a secondary treatment effectiveness competition, and a full-scale design competition.

This article was posted on: January 30, 2001

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