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Ballast Water Management – Why does it matter?

Last week Finland ratified the International Maritime Organisation’s (IMO) Ballast Water Management Convention. The 52nd contracting party tipped the target of 35% world shipping tonnage and triggered entry into force by September 2017.

September 2016

We’ve been waiting a long time for this, as the convention was adopted way back in 2004 and yet the UK has consistently decided not to sign up or ratify the Convention. Despite this, many UK vessels are likely to have to comply with the convention requirements to trade with signatories of the convention, which include Germany, Russia and the Netherlands.

So what does it matter?

Invasive non-native species are one of the biggest threats to biodiversity world wide. Ballast water helps stabilise empty ships but is discharged at ports and marinas before adding cargo. However, ballast water also transports an estimated 10,000 marine species around the world every day. These include bacteria, microbes, small invertebrates, eggs, cysts and larvae of various species. The transferred species may survive to establish a reproductive population in the host environment, becoming invasive, out-competing native species and multiplying into pest proportions. Ballast water discharge from ships is one of the largest pathways for the introduction and spread of aquatic invasive species.

Introduction rates have been reported as high as two to three new species per year for Port Phillip Bay, Melbourne, Australia and up to one species every nine weeks for San Francisco Bay, California, USA.

As trade routes continue to expand and new routes open such as through the Arctic, the risk of invasive non-native species being transported through ballast remains a big concern. Examples of species transported in ballast water include the Chinese mitten crab and the Quagga mussel, the latter, in particular, altering entire ecosystems where it establishes. Once marine or brackish species establish, they are nigh on impossible to eradicate: options tend to be either spending huge amounts of money in eradication or management, or standing by and watching as they destroy our native biota. As such, ballast water management – as laid out in the convention – offers a better solution, by helping us to prevent the arrival of such species into our ports and marinas in the first place.

The Ballast Water Management Convention requires all ships to implement a ballast water management plan. All ships will have to carry a Ballast Water Record Book and will be required to carry out ballast water management procedures to a given standard. In short, these procedures aim to kill all the living organisms in the ballast water before the water is discharged, with direct benefits for people too – this includes a lot of pathogens including cholera!

The fact that the convention has finally been triggered into force is a great step forward to reducing the number of aquatic invasive non-native species reaching our shores and being transported to other shores. The process has been arduous, with dragging of heels and lots of squabbling about details. The convention may not be perfect, but, we cannot afford to wait for all the wrinkles to be ironed out, we need to act now and adapt the process along the way if necessary. The technology is out there, let’s use it.

We now urge the UK more than ever to sign up and ratify the convention, let’s show the world we really are at the forefront of Europe when it comes to management of invasive non-native species.

Hannah Freeman

Member of Link's Invasive Non Native Species Group and Government Affairs Officer, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust

Find Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust on Twitter @WWTWorldwide

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.