Determining how clean a ship’s ballast water must be to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species is the goal of the latest research partnership between the Northeast-Midwest Institute and the Lake Superior Research Institute (LSRI) at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

Using $415,000 recently awarded by the Northeast-Midwest Institute, LSRI Associate Researcher Matt TenEyck will direct controlled experiments to measure the effect of treated ballast water on Twin Ports harbor water. His work will be part of a broader project led by Allegra Cangelosi, president of the Northeast-Midwest Institute. Together, their research will generate the first direct scientific data on the risk-release relationship that is relevant to the Great Lakes region.

The project is funded by a $1 million award to the Northeast-Midwest Institute by the Great Lakes Protection Fund, a private, nonprofit corporation formed to identify, demonstrate and promote regional action to enhance the health of the Great Lakes ecosystem.

“There is no quick or easy way to generate this information for the Great Lakes, but we need answers; the sooner the better,” Cangelosi said. “We are grateful to the Great Lakes Protection Fund for allowing us to get started at the same time as the national effort.”

LSRI scientists under the direction of Dr. Mary Balcer have been working since 2005 with the Northeast-Midwest Institute’s Great Ships Initiative to help validate in fresh water treatment technology for preventing the spread of aquatic invasive animals and plants that are carried in ships’ ballast tanks. The new research award to LSRI is the latest step in that ongoing partnership.

“Finding effective ways to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species is critical to the future of the Great Lakes and to maritime commerce,” said Chancellor Renée Wachter. “We’re pleased the Northeast-Midwest Institute has entrusted this important research project to our scientists at LSRI.”

The Northeast-Midwest Institute launched the latest research project to address what the National Resource Council termed “a profound lack of information” around how effective various ballast water discharge standards may be at preventing aquatic organism invasions.

Ships carry ballast water for stability. By taking on ballast water in one port and discharging it in another, they can introduce foreign aquatic species that compete with native species. Various standards for treating ballast water to kill the invasive species are being debated around the country as part of an effort to stop ships from inadvertently transporting aquatic species from one ecosystem to another.

The Northeast-Midwest Institute, in collaboration with state, federal and global academic experts, will generate a detailed plan and the first field data to assess the degree of protection from invasion risk that is provided by the range of ballast discharge standards currently in the Great Lakes region. The effort will be consistent with recommendations of the National Research Council for a national research effort and will ensure that Great Lakes concerns are at the forefront of that effort.

Most people agree that commercial ships should—and soon will—treat ballast water discharge to help prevent introduction of aquatic invasive species to the Great Lakes and other U.S. waters. But fierce controversy remains around the question “How clean is clean?”

Ballast discharge standards in the Great Lakes region differ widely. Environmentalists complain that national and international standards are too weak given the huge volumes of ballast water involved. Meanwhile, shipping interests point out that too tight a standard may cripple their industry or delay environmental protection.

The controversy over ballast water treatment standards arises from a lack of information about the actual risk of discharging treated water that contains some level of surviving organisms. The latest research project involving Northeast-Midwest Institute and LSRI will generate the first direct scientific data on the risk-release relationship relevant to the Great Lakes region.

Under LSRI’s portion of the project, TenEyck will conduct controlled experiments using “mesocosms” that contain Twin Ports harbor water and its natural organisms.

Planning of the testing process is under way this winter, involving local, national and international experts. In late spring, work will begin at the Great Ships’ Initiative ballast water testing facility on Superior’s waterfront.

LSRI scientist will set up a series of 1,000-liter aquariums containing harbor water. They will add varying levels of an aquatic invasive species and then analyze how the invaders fare compared to the species currently in the harbor. They’ll “bracket” existing treatment standards by adding more and fewer invasive creatures than the standards allow.

“When the standards for ballast water treatment were set there was little scientific data. We’re trying to see whether the standards are too lenient or two stringent,” TenEyck said.

UW-Superior science students will take part in the project, enabling them to gain hands-on experience in scientific research.

At the same time, Cangelosi will lead field surveys in Duluth and Two Harbors, Minn., charting actual discharges of live organisms from ships, and the makeup of animal and plant life in harbor waters.

The testing program will continue for two years. TenEyck said they hope the testing will open the door to further testing of a wider range of aquatic species.