Exotic Policy

An IJC White Paper
On Policies for the Prevention of
The Invasion of the Great Lakes by Exotic Organisms

July 15, 1999
Eric Reeves

§ 1. Introduction: Coming to terms with the issue

About ten years ago, the Great Lakes environmental community initiated the first action to counteract the worldwide spread of exotic organisms in ballast water. In 1988, in response to the discovery of the ruffe and the zebra mussel in the Great Lakes, the Great Lakes Fishery Commission and the International Joint Commission called upon the Canadian and United States Governments to act. In 1989, Canada issued the first voluntary ballast exchange guidelines. In 1990, the United States passed the first major piece of legislation on aquatic nuisance species, mandating consultations and studies on all pathways for aquatic invasions. And in 1993, the US Coast Guard issued the first set of mandatory regulations for controlling ballast water in the Great Lakes. The issue is now on the global agenda. The International Maritime Organization, under pressure from Canada, the United States, and Australia, has issued similar guidelines and begun to consider a mandatory international convention. The United States enacted a second major piece of legislation in 1996, making it a national issue, and Canada enacted legislation authorizing national mandatory regulations to control ballast water in 1998.

With support from the Great Lakes environmental community, and with valuable assistance from distant allies in Australia, a Great Lakes regional coalition of binational, federal, state, and provincial agencies seems to have made considerable progress on the problem of exotics in these last ten years. 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 somewhat "exotic" in political terms even within the special culture of the environmental community - into an issue accepted as worthy of attention, even if still sometimes poorly understood, by the mainstream public and their political leadership. Moreover, the enactments of the first major pieces of legislation in the US and Canada, even if largely tentative and inchoate, have come relatively quickly in comparison to the history of legislative efforts on other forms of pollution.

But there are two reasons to be cautious about this apparent success. First, the nature of the problem is inherently acute. As a matter of biological reality, exotic invasions are irreversible. This is a form of pollution that can never be cleaned up, and new invasions compound the damage already done to a stressed ecosystem. Second, much of the progress in developing legal regimes is illusionary - or worse. Although the Great Lakes mandatory regulations issued in 1993 were an essential first step, they are fundamentally flawed. So is the design of the national regime being developed in the United States, especially because of an alteration in the terms of that legislation obtained by the shipping industry as it was rewritten from a Great Lakes to a United States regime. The international convention being negotiated at the International Maritime Organization in London sounds as though it would be a good thing. But it contains the same flaws - and one more. Under some versions of the convention under negotiation, it would prohibit the enforcement of stronger provisions enacted by national and subordinate governments. These are matters that require close attention.

Also, ballast water is not the only pathway for invasion. Although the state and provincial governments in the Great Lakes region have a wide array of legal authorities and programs for the control of exotics, they are far from being uniformly strong or consistent in their terms. There are substantial issues about some major vectors - aquaculture, bait transportation, and the aquarium trade - which beg for attention. There is an obvious need for better coordination of strategies and enforcement policies at the federal, binational, and regional levels.

Those are some of the points addressed in this paper. The purpose of this paper is also to provide a common body of facts and ideas to assist in the discussion of "exotic policy" - the public policy for dealing with the invasion of the Great Lakes by exotic organisms - at an IJC workshop to be held with the 1999 Great Lakes Water Quality Forum.(1) I attempt to sum up the essential biological, technical, legal, economic, and political aspects of this complex, newly emerging environmental issue. I try to do that in an objective and analytical manner. But I also try to be honest about my point of view, which is distinctly biased in favor of environmental conservation and the proposition that our current policies for the prevention of exotic invasions are inadequate. All that might be impossible. But I hope that this will, at least, provide a basis for stimulating discussion.

It is basic to the nature of most environmental problems, and certainly true of the problem of exotic invasions, that they involve disparate social communities. There is often a wide gulf between the "public interest groups" or the "environmental community" concerned with the damage being done to natural resources and the "economic interests" or the "business community" who are equally concerned about the cost of regulatory programs. Both claim, with some justification, to represent the wider "public interest." Both are in fact legitimate "special interests" appealing to a wider public interest in very different terms, based on different values. One of the major problems to be dealt with, analytically and politically, is the problem of evaluating these competing claims on the general interest. It is not helped by the fact that these opposing communities often speak in different terms, almost different languages. The need to preserve "priceless resources" and a "vision of the future" is countered by the need to avoid "increasing costs" and undermining "economic development." Nor does it help that the government bureaucrats who are supposed to fairly balance the two interests seem to speak an entirely different language of "regulatory process" and "cost/benefit analysis."(2) It is almost as bad when they get down to concrete details and bring in their experts. Aquatic biologists look at ballast water as an environment for limnetic and benthic organisms which alter the energy balance or competitive characteristics of native ecosystems. Marine engineers look at ballast water in terms of metric tonnes and flow rates which alter safety parameters and competitive cargo rates. The lawyers (you cannot forget about them, no matter how much you might want to) look at it in terms of statutory definitions of "pollution," questions of "preemption," enforcement standards, and exemptions.

I will attempt to bridge these divides - to provide a guide to the perplexed and a means to translate among these groups. In the course of doing so, however, I will introduce another language not normally used by any of them, but one which is essential to understanding what it all means. This is the language of political economics. This is the perspective which sums up all human problems in the terms of "markets," "externalities," "values," "optimality," "rational choice," "institutional structures," "transaction costs," and "game strategies." To some, this sort of talk is the most offensive of all. To some environmentalists, this is pseudoscientific jargon for selling out on fundamental human values. To some industrialists, this is the babble of a bunch of ivory tower intellectuals telling them how to manage a business they know nothing about. It should, in fact, be language which is quite understandable by biologists and other environmental scientists, because it is built upon the same principles which govern natural selection and evolution.(3) Despite that, however, there is a regrettable divide between the way that a biologist and a political scientist (such as myself) look at the world. I hope to convince you that there is a basis for translating between these communities, and that there is a potential for meaningful dialogue here. Dialogue, however, is not the same as agreement. Because of the difference in the interests of the opposing groups, there will be, inescapably, vehement disagreements on the primary policy questions. I will not attempt to paper over that whatsoever. But I will try to provide a basis for dealing with those disagreements in a rational way.

My primary focus is on the predominant vector for new invasions of the Great Lakes - ballast water. But I also review the threat from certain "commercial uses" of exotics - aquaculture, bait, and aquaria. The following sections provide a biological threat assessment, a description of the relevant industries, a review of legal regimes in the Great Lakes region, the United States, Canada, and the world, and then, finally, a suggested framework for analysis of the economics and politics of exotics. This paper is organized so that you do not need to read all of it, or read it in any particular order. As much as possible, each main section stands by itself, and I have included an appendix on terms and acronyms to help translate the language from various disciplines. Some of it is very concrete and detailed. Some of it is rather philosophical. It is an attempt to lay out all relevant aspects of the issue. And some of it is wrong. There will no doubt be places where I have misstated something from the literature outside my own areas of expertise, or where my interpretations could benefit from contrary views. I hope to receive those corrections and hear those contrary views at the IJC workshop.

I begin by reciting the basic facts, familiar to many, about the damage done by exotics. But let me also warn the reader that this misses the main point of the problem. Too much of our current effort in the environmental community, in terms of actual research dollars(4) and intellectual capital, is spent on continuing refinement of the diagnosis of the disease. That is entirely valid scientific work as far as it goes. But it has too often been an excuse for the lack of action on curing the disease. There seems to be an assumption that one more study documenting the ecosystem effects or economic costs of the zebra mussel will finally prompt the necessary action. But any assumption that we have failed to take effective action because of a lack of information - even though better information would certainly help - is mistaken. We have failed to act because the industries which are the vectors for invasions, and which have no incentive to support meaningful action, have claimed ownership of the issue and captured the attention of the government agencies responsible for promoting the public interest. The general environmental community has remained more concerned with other pressing issues, such as toxics, habitats, and extinctions - and has failed to incorporate the synergistic interactions of exotics into their thinking about those other issues. Some specific sectors of the environmental community, or perhaps groups that we might call more traditional conservationists, have claimed ownership of the problem. But too many of them are more concerned with invasions which have already taken place, and they are noticeably absent at the councils in the higher levels of government, at the national and international forums, where critical decisions are being made. Understanding the biological threat is the first step, but only the first one.

On the whole, the problem of exotic species should be a relatively easy environmental problem. Unlike global warming, this does not require changes in life styles. Unlike toxic chemicals, this does not require significant changes in industrial infrastructure. This does not require massive expenditures or the invention of new technologies. With respect to the problem of exotics in ballast water - the vector which presents the greatest cost problem, but the one which also promises the highest payoff for preventative measures - the technologies for dealing with the problem already exist and the costs of implementing them are relatively low. That does not mean that the costs are inconsequential, or that they might not have significant effects on some sectors of the shipping industry. You will see many dollar signs in this paper, because I spend a great of time talking about costs. In the end, however, I submit that they are quite manageable. The double-hull requirement in the US Oil Pollution Control Act of 1990, alone, added 10%-20% to the cost of new tankers. We are talking here about costs more in the range of 1% of the cost of new construction. That is the good news. The bad news is that the problem of exotics in ballast water is especially time-sensitive. Every new invasion is irreversible. Yet, every year that we go on without incorporating some simple design changes in new vessel construction, we lose the opportunity to make those changes in vessels which will be in service 20 to 30 years - and which will be much more expensive to correct with later retrofitting.

Dealing with the other vectors of concern - aquaculture, baitfish, and aquaria - should be of minimal cost. It certainly does not require new technologies or limitations on the ability of those businesses to thrive. In fact, better coordination of policies among the multitude of jurisdictions already regulating those activities, and use of logical points in the stream of commerce to establish better quality control, are things which may benefit some of those businesses. That is the good news. But the bad news is that it is not being done.

Ten years is not a long time. But exotic invasions are for a very long time. The critical question for the reader of this paper or the participant in the IJC workshop is ask is whether or not the Great Lakes will really be any better protected ten years from now. In the end, I submit, the answer to that question lies not in biology and technology but in economics and politics.