Australia Signs Treaty to Limit Hitchhikers in Ballast Water

CANBERRA, Australia, June 2, 2005 (ENS) - The marine environment will have greater protection from introduced pests now that Australia has signed an international agreement on ships' ballast water, says Australian Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Minister Warren Truss.

Today Australia became the first country to sign the International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships' Ballast Water and Sediments, an initiative of the UN International Maritime Organization (IMO), based in London. An IMO Diplomatic Conference adopted the text of the treaty in February 2004.

Ballast water is the water taken up and released by ships to stabilize them as they sail the oceans loading and unloading cargo. Scientists estimate that at any given moment 10,000 different species are being moved between various regions around the world in ballast water tanks.

"Australia was a world leader in this area, being the first country to introduce guidelines for ballast water management for international ships," Truss said. "The shipping industry particularly will benefit from this new agreement, as it will provide greater international consistency regarding ballast water requirements."

About 60 million metric tons of ballast water are discharged annually into Australian ports. Many iron ore and coal carrying ships arrive empty of cargo and fully ballasted, so enormous volumes of foreign water are pumped into Australian ports.

Truss said that ballast water management is a serious issue. "When it is taken up into a ship's ballast tanks, marine pests such as mussels or seastar larvae may inadvertently hitch a ride and then be released into a new environment - an environment that is often free of their major predators," he said.


The northern Pacific seastar reproduces in large numbers, reaching plague proportions rapidly in invaded environments. (Photo courtesy VDSE)
"The northern Pacific seastar, for example, is a major pest that may have been introduced into Australia via ballast water. This pest is now causing serious problems for our marine environment and industries."

The Northern Pacific seastar is currently found in huge numbers in southern parts of Australia. It feeds on wild and farmed shellfish and a wide variety of other marine animals. The seastar can have a major impact on populations of native shellfish, which are important components of the marine food chain.

The Northern Pacific seastar is native to the coasts of China, Korea, Russia and Japan. They are also found across the Bering Sea in Alaska and northern Canada. In its native range, this seastar is found in coastal waters from the intertidal to 200 meter depth.

This seastar was most likely introduced into Australia through ballast water from Japan. It was first confirmed in the Derwent River in Tasmania in 1992, but is believed to have been introduced earlier. Today the sea star has become the dominant invertebrate predator in Tasmania's Derwent estuary.

In early 2004, there was a small outbreak of the seastar on Victoria's open coastline. By September 2004, the Northern Pacific Seastar was established at Victoria's Port Phillip Bay.

In recognition of the environmental and economic threat from this pest to southern ocean waters the first National Control Plan for a marine pest in Australia has been developed.

Truss said that ballast water management is a key focus of Australia's National System for the Prevention and Management of Marine Pest Incursions.


Tug helps a cargo vessel from Hong Kong navigate Port Botany, Australia. (Photo by Peter Brennan courtesy Australian Maritime Services)
The treaty requires that whenever possible, ballast water exchanges shall be conducted at least 200 nautical miles from the nearest land and in water at least 200 meters (656 feet) in depth.

In cases where the ship is unable to conduct such ballast water exchanges, this should be as far from the nearest land as possible, and in all cases at least 50 nautical miles from the nearest land and in water at least 200 meters in depth.

The IMO notes that ballast water is responsible for some serious health problems. "Some cholera epidemics appear to be directly associated with ballast water," says the organization.

Toxic algae that cause red, brown, or green tides are carried in ballast water. Depending on the species, they can cause massive kills of marine life through oxygen depletion, release of toxins and mucus. These algae can foul beaches and impact tourism and recreation. Some species may contaminate filter-feeding shellfish and cause fisheries to be closed. Consumption of contaminated shellfish by humans may cause severe illness and death.

"The next step for Australia will be to consider ratifying the Convention, a move many other countries will make as they recognize the seriousness of this growing problem," Truss said.

The Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, together with the Department of Transport and Regional Services, has begun the process of considering Australian ratification of the convention.

The process is based on detailed consideration of the implications of the convention for Australia’s national interest. Consultation with affected industries and the states and territories will continue, Truss said. The process will also include legislative changes and due parliamentary scrutiny.

The International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast Water and Sediments will come into force 12 months after ratification by 30 countries, representing 35 percent of world merchant shipping tonnage.