Friday, March 20, 2009

Fun with ballast water: Part 3

I don't know why this ballast water stuff keeps cropping up in the news all at once. Judging from the dearth of blog comments, invasive species in ships ballast tanks is not a hot topic with blog readers but its huge when it comes to the health of the lake. Wisconsin's solo and ineffectual efforts to deal with the problem, the PS in my last post was aggravating for me hear about. To add to this lack of progress and 'fiddling while Rome burns' scenario, we have our own hometown boy, US District Judge James Rosenbaum, throwing out a lawsuit brought by a coalition of Minnesota and Wisconsin (no Yoopers?) conservation groups. In a nutshell they want the court to move to protect Lake Superior from Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia, or VHS, first discovered in the Great Lakes basin in 2003 and has since spread to some inland Wisconsin waters. This virus,thought to have been introduced through ballast water discharge, is deadly to dozens of fish species and could be a disaster for the Lake Superior fishery. In rejecting the suit, Judge Rosenbaum stated the suit was, in effect, a request for him to "dive into a prophylactic effort to protect Lake Superior."

No shit, judge? You mean those groups wanted you (the law) to help stop the virus BEFORE it actually spreads to Lake Superior?? There certainly can't be any law in our myriad of local, state, provincal, or national environmental regulations that would give any of the pile of agencies charged with protecting or enforcing water quality standards the authority to deal with this problem, right? Wait a minute.....I seem to recall just a couple instances where the prophylactic approach is used. I get a big fine if the DNR finds a sliver of milfoil on my kayak, paddle, or any other gear when I go from lake to lake. That fine is also imposed if I dump my minnows into a lake that I'm fishing on. If I throw a couple shovels full of dirt into an area of my property that the DNR has decided is a wetland, there are about 10 statutes they can bring to bear on me. On a much broader scale, I think the Department of Homeland Security was created to help prevent people from flying airplanes into buildings rather than to catch and prosecute them after they have done so. No Judge Rosenbaum, I have to think there are all sorts of legal means that could be used to help prevent the spread of VHS into Gitchee Gumee. I'd like to read your 16 page brief on the subject if I could get my hands on it. It seems to me that this concept of the prophylactic approach has all sorts of useful legal precedent.

On the technological front, a reseacher at one of my favorite spots on the lake, Houghton, MI, has come up with what seems to be a cheap and effective approach to sanitizing ballast water. I have a number of friends and relatives who have graduated from Michigan Tech University and I was alerted to this research by that noted MTU grad and protector of the public health, Nan. David Hand of MTU, professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is working on a simple and effective way to treat ballast water with household bleach. We homebrewers have known for years that a weak solution of bleach will kill bacteria that can cause off flavors and screw up fermentation in beer, and it would make complete sense that it could do the same with a virus in ballast water. It might even kill a few other nasty organisms that we haven't even identified as a problem yet. The bleach can then be neutralized by a number of compounds, including Vitamin C, before its discharged in port. I'm sure more testing would be needed but it seems like that is already underway with the NPS on Isle Royale (headquartered in Houghton, by the way) and the American Steamship Company, as I had mentioned in a previous post.

I sincerely and feverently hope that something can be done to stop VHS and the other invasives that sneak into the Great Lakes on the average of one every seven months. It will take cooperation between the government, commercial concerns, and the public and it will likely not be cheap, easy, or painless, which seems to be the way the public prefers its solutions these days. Like Professor Hand, I love to fish Isle Royale. I do it from my kayak rather than a power boat because devices with motors generally hate me, but we love to chase the same fish. The Lake Superior northern in the photo is not suffering from VHS but rather a bacterial infection called lympho sarcoma. It appears in cold water and sloughs off in warmer temps. The northern as well as the lake trout in the other photo are great examples of the Lake Superior fishery. I would hope that the 'powers that be' can recognize the importance of this fishery and act to protect it before its too late. We want to keep these species and quality of fish available and healthy for future generations.

P.S. There is an excellent explanation of the whole mess in the Ashland Daily Press

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