IJC Remarks at the 10th International Aquatic Nuisance Species Conference

Remarks by L. H. Legault, Chairman, Canadian Section, International Joint Commission at the 10th International Aquatic Nuisance Species Conference, Toronto, Ontario, February 14, 2000

I am pleased and honoured to address this 10th International Conference on Aquatic Nuisance Species and Zebra Mussels. With many members of the Great Lakes aquatic nuisance species panel here today, I wish to take this opportunity to commend you for your hard work.

A great deal of progress has been made in cooperatively addressing aquatic nuisance species control and prevention in the Great Lakes system over the last decade. On this 10th Anniversary of your conference, I would like to reflect on that progress and what the Commission feels remains to be done to more effectively come to grips with the problem. I will focus especially on the nuisance species originating from the discharge of ballast water in the Great Lakes - St. Lawrence River basin.

As many of you are aware, the International Joint Commission is a binational Canada-United States organization established under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 to assist the governments in preventing and resolving disputes relating to boundary waters. The Commission is an independent binational body made up of six commissioners. Through responsibilities assigned to it under the Canada-United States Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the International Joint Commission assesses the progress "being made to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes basin ecosystem". Although, the agreement primarily focuses on chemical contaminants, nuisance species and ballast water are mentioned in annex 6, which deals generally with pollution from ships. The annex, however, only calls upon the Parties to determine whether nuisance species in ballast water discharges constitute a threat to the Great Lakes system. Unhappily, we have known the answer to that question for quite some time.

Progress on the issue of aquatic nuisance species has been reflected in enhanced awareness of the problem and in programs and policies adopted by governments.

In 1989, in response to a call for action from the Great Lakes Fishery Commission and the IJC, the Canadian government issued the first guidelines designed to control the invasion of alien organisms in ballast water. In the ten years since, much has been written about the introduction of aquatic nuisance species into different parts of the world, including the great lakes. With support from the great lakes environmental community, and drawing upon the experience of Australia, a Great Lakes regional coalition of binational federal, state, and provincial agencies has made a considerable effort to address the problem of nuisance species.

In terms of public education and political rhetoric, the effort has been a great success. We have seen the transformation of what was an arcane and poorly understood issue -- an issue which was itself somewhat "exotic" in political terms even within the special culture of the environmental community -- into an issue demanding attention, by mainstream public opinion and political leaders alike.

As a sign of that progress, the United States has just recently promulgated the first guidelines for a nationwide voluntary ballast water regime, and has also issued an executive order calling for better national coordination of policy regarding all nuisance species and all vectors or pathways of infestation. Canada has just enacted legislation authorizing nationwide regulations on ballast water. The International Maritime Organization is considering a worldwide convention on exotics in ballast water.

There are, however, some fundamental reasons to be cautious about this apparent progress to date in the great lakes basin now that the issue is moving from a regional concern to a national and international challenge.

The problem of aquatic nuisance species is among the most complex environmental issues facing natural resource managers and environmental policy makers today. First, the problem is inherently acute in nature. As a matter of biological reality, exotic invasions are irreversible. This is a form of pollution that can never be cleaned up and is considered by many experts to have a greater impact on global environmental health than many chemical types of pollution. New invasions only compound the damage already done to a stressed ecosystem.

Second, although nuisance species have become a major concern for the public and all levels of government, this concern does not necessarily translate into effective regulatory policies. The current regime for the control of exotics in ballast water is limited in effectiveness, in part because it depends on ballast exchange on the high seas.

In the search for an effective regime, other legitimate concerns intrude and obstacles arise. Let us examine some of them. Geography has helped to ensure a binational approach with regard to the enforcement of nuisance species legislation within the great lakes basin. On the other hand, however, the basic concepts of the Canadian and U.S. regimes as they are still being developed are quite different. Ships must pass through five Canadian locks before entering U.S. waters. Joint boardings, which used to take place in only Massena, New York, are now taking place in Montreal as well.

The Canadian system is quasi-voluntary but may result in charges and convictions and returning ships to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The U.S. legislation (national invasive species act of 1996) is much more specific. It relies on ballast exchange but allows a very broad exemption for the protection of ship safety and human life, which considerably weakens its applicability.

The fundamental flaw in the safety exemption is that it does not require the owner of the vessel to take safe alternative measures to clean up the ballast water. The international convention on aquatic nuisance species being negotiated at the International Maritime Organization in London contains this same flaw - and one more. Under some draft versions of the convention under negotiation, it may prohibit the enforcement of stronger provisions enacted by governments.

No one, of course, wishes to pursue the fight against the introduction of nuisance species at the cost of endangering ships and risking human life. Nor should anyone wish to hamper this fight by automatically invoking the safety of ships and human life as a bar to the adoption of effective weapons. Everyone should join together in the search for measures that advance both objectives and protect ships and human life as well as the environment.

For aquatic nuisance species generally, inconsistency of approach among various jurisdictions can also give rise to obstacles. Given the ecosytemic nature of exotics infestation problems, and the limited resources to address them, the Great Lakes panel agreed that enhanced consistency among Great Lakes states, provinces, tribal authorities, and other jurisdictions would ensure a more efficient and effective regional prevention and control program.

For nuisance species in ballast water, in particular, a binational research strategy is one form of enhanced consistency to which the commission attaches special importance. Together with the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, the IJC raised this issue in a 1990 report to governments, Entitled Exotic Species and the Shipping Industry. The report emphasized the need for a standardized, even-handed and systematic exploration of possible approaches to dealing with the introduction of exotic species into the great lakes via shipping.

In 1998, the Commission wrote to the governments endorsing the proposed binational ballast water research strategy and plan that was jointly submitted to the Commission by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (Canadian Coast Guard), Transport Canada (Marine Safety) and the United States Coast Guard in their annual report to the IJC on this subject.

The purpose of the proposed plan, quite simply, was to fill in those critical elements of research needs that are not being adequately addressed at the present time, taking advantage of opportunities for collaboration with other agencies and organizations also working on these issues.

Although governments have not yet formally recognized the need for a binational research strategy, the commission is encouraged by the close working relationships between the responsible agencies in keeping with the broad thrust of the strategy proposed.

The Commission has also been active in the field of public consultation and public information. In partnership with the Great Lakes Fishery Commission and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Office of the Great Lakes, the IJC sponsored a one-day workshop on "exotics policy" at the biennial great lakes water quality forum in Milwaukee on 23 September 1999. This was followed up by a report to the public, with additional discussion, on 26 September 1999. Given the number of initiatives now under consideration, and the number of questions about the actual effectiveness of current approaches, the Commission considered it important to conduct a comprehensive review of policies on exotics, with public participation in the exercise.

As a result of this process, we were pleased to learn that there is unanimous agreement, notably on the part of the shipping industry and the responsible agencies and environmental groups, that the IJC should bring to the attention of governments the need for a meaningful standard for regulating the exchange or treatment of ballast water and for an incentive for industry to meet or exceed that standard.

The Commission believes that the concept of an effective, biologically-based standard for allowable discharges of ballast, which focuses on the end goal but leaves the means for achieving that goal a choice for private enterprise, is a critical point which may make the decisive difference in prompting some action by governments. Remember that the U.S. Coast Guard recently considered amending its regulatory salinity standard, but chose not to act because it recognized the need for a better standard still.

Recently, the Commission has been especially interested in the potential that might exist to address the issue of aquatic nuisance species through on-shore treatment of ballast water. The establishment of shore-based facilities where ships would treat their ballast water before entering the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence system could do much to reduce the threat of introducing invasive species while posing no risk to vessels or human life.

In October, 1999, the Commission put this concept before the Canadian government. In addition to offering improved protection for the great lakes system, the Commission pointed out, such facilities could serve as a research laboratory for emerging ballast water treatment technologies for all north American waters. At the same time, the Commission suggested that governments consult with the shipping interests about this matter. The Commission is awaiting the Canadian government's response to its letter.

To sum up: yes, there has been progress in controlling aquatic nuisance species in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence system. But prevention is far better than control, and we are still far from having effective means to prevent the introduction of nuisance species in ballast water. Meanwhile, invasions of these species are causing enormous damage to the system. The damage will only escalate as invasions continue. It is time to find an alternative to ballast exchange on the high seas. It is time for the Canadian and U.S. governments to formally adopt a coordinated binational research strategy and plan for the Great Lakes.

Revised: 6 April 2000
Maintained by: Doug Bondy, bondyd@windsor.ijc.org