Ballast Stowaways: Freshwater Species of the Week

We previously reported that a wide range of living things can hitch a ride in the ballast water of ships, and then end up getting discharged in a body of water where they aren’t native. Some of those transplants can take hold, start reproducing, and eventually become pest invasive species that crowd out the locals.

freshwater species of the weekThis is no niche problem, because 80 percent of the world’s commodities travel across the water, meaning there are a lot of transport ships plying the waves. Ships need to take on, or release, ballast to optimize the way they sit in the water. But environmentalists have warned for years that captains need to take care before they turn on those pumps.

This week, international researchers have gathered at the world’s first freshwater ballast treatment center to compare notes and plot ways to better get a hold on this global problem.

Perhaps echoing regional fears over the expansion of the Asian carp, Minnesota Lieutenant Governor Yvonne Prettner-Solon said, “Nothing is more important [than] this, than making sure that the Great Lakes stay open to world commerce,” according to Northland’s Newscenter.

The local news outlet also quoted Allegra Cangelosi, president of the Northeast-Midwest Institute, who said, “This is not an easy thing to have a treatment system that won’t itself hurt the lakes, but will protect the lakes from living things brought from afar virtually anywhere in the world.”

According to Minnesota Sea Grant, the $850,000 test facility in Superior is part of the Great Ships Initiative, “a $3.5 million effort that brings representatives from the maritime industry, government, environmental groups, and academia together in an unprecedented way to speed the availability of treatment systems for ballast water.”

Run by a staff of six scientists, the Ballast Water Treatment Testing Facility was installed on Montreal Pier in 2007 to test ways to treat freshwater ballast water, including ultraviolet light, filtration, deoxygenation, and other methods. Species they look for include diatoms, copepods, mollusks, crustaceans, and many other forms of life (maybe even freshwater jellyfish, a recent freshwater species of the week).

In 2007, Cangelosi said the test facility was built “to incubate ballast water treatment technologies and identify the most promising treatment alternatives. This is the step between laboratory experiments and outfitting working ships with ballast treatment systems.”

The facility is run jointly by the University of Wisconsin-Superior and the University of Minnesota Duluth. Hopefully, it will help scientists develop affordable technologies and techniques that will prevent the next Asian carp or zebra mussels from taking hold.


Brian Clark Howard covers the environment for National Geographic. He previously served as an editor for and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for Popular Science,,,, Yahoo!, MSN, and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVACGreen LightingBuild Your Own Small Wind Power System, and Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater.