The US General Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a report on the progress and challenges in preventing the introduction into US waters of invasive species through the ballast water carried in ships. The report discusses the legislative and regulatory history of ballast water management and identifies some of the issues that pose challenges for the federal government’s program for preventing the introduction of invasive species via ships’ ballast water. The report notes that, although industry compliance with existing ballast water exchange requirements has generally been high, the current program is not a viable long-term approach to minimizing the risks posed by ballast water discharges.
Since 1998, Coast Guard data show that compliance with existing ballast water exchange requirements has generally been high. However, key agencies and stakeholders recognize that the current ballast water exchange program is not a viable long-term approach to minimizing the risks posed by ballast water discharges. The primary reasons for this are that:
- many ships are exempt from current ballast water exchange requirements
- the Coast Guard has not established alternate discharge zones that could be used by ships unable to conduct ballast water exchange for various reasons
- ballast water exchange is not always effective at removing or killing potentially invasive species.
Developers are pursuing technologies to provide more reliable alternatives to ballast water exchange, some of which show promise. However, development of such technologies and their eventual use to meet ballast water regulatory requirements face many challenges including the daunting technological task of developing large scale water treatment systems that ships can accommodate, and the lack of a federal discharge standard that would provide a target for developers to aim for in terms of treatment efficiency. As a result, ballast water exchange is still the only approved method for treating ballast water despite the concerns with this method’s effectiveness. Consequently, U.S. waters remain vulnerable to the introduction of invasive species via ships’ ballast water. State governments and others have expressed frustration over the seemingly slow progress the federal government has made on more effectively protecting U.S. waters from future species invasions via ballast water. As a result, several states have passed legislation that authorizes procedures for managing ballast water that are stricter than federal regulations.