Feature Story                                                            July 2011 

Ballast Water Reporting and Analysis: The National Ballast Information Clearinghouse (NBIC)

An oil tanker discharging ballast water in San Franscisco Bay. Photo by Monaca Noble

How are commercial ships and invasive species related? Commercial ships (freighters, tankers, etc) are designed to carry cargo, but for them to sail safely, all the weight on the ship must be balanced. If a ship has no cargo, or only a limited amount, it can fill specialized tanks with water to use for balance. This water is called ballast water. Ballast water tanks are located all around the ship; they surround the cargo holds and line the bottom of the ship. When cargo is unloaded from the vessel, ballast tanks are filled with water from that port, water which contains many organisms. This water is then discharged, along with those organisms, at another port, possibly thousands of miles away, when cargo is loaded. The Marine Invasions Research Lab has been studying the transfer of species in ballast water for many years. Over time our research and that of others led to regulations requiring ships to replace the port water in their ballast tanks with water from the mid-ocean, water which contains many fewer organisms and few that could survive outside of the mid-ocean environment. This process of replacing port water with ocean water is called ballast water exchange. When properly implemented, ballast water exchange has been shown to reduce the risk of species introductions. 

Federal Regulations concerning ballast water are developed and enforced by the United States Coast Guard (USCG). The USCG requires ships traveling to the United States to report how much ballast water they are carrying, where it came from, whether or not it was exchanged, and if they plan to discharge it. The National Ballast Water Clearinghouse (NBIC) was created as a joint program of the USCG and The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s (SERC) Marine Invasion Research Lab to collect and analyze those reports to better understand the patterns of ship movements, ballast water delivery and ballast water management practices of commercial ships.

Approximately one hundred-thousand reports are submitted annually. Most of the reports are submitted by email but some are faxed or completed online. When a report is received it goes through a series of quality control steps to check for accuracy. During the initial stage the form is scanned electronically and any omissions or simple mistakes are flagged. During the second stage the form is reviewed by a data manager who responds to the vessel with questions or requests for an amended form. Reports that are ready for analysis are made available on the NBIC online database. In this database, users can search for information about the number of ships that arrived to a certain location, California for example, in a given timeframe. They can also learn how much ballast water was discharged and how much of that was exchanged at sea. In addition to providing data to the public online, NBIC also conducts more detailed analyses for the USCG and prepares biennial reports, which summarizes the general observed patterns. By conducting thorough analyses of ballast water discharge patterns in the United States, the NBIC team plays a critical role by informing the USCG as they write and enforce more stringent ballast water regulations, and thus helping to reduce the risk of future species introductions through ballast water discharge.

NBIC staff also work with researchers and state agencies to provide data and analyze the risk of ballast water introductions in specific locations. For example, NBIC analysts worked with researchers at the University of Windsor and Fisheries and Oceans Canada in Ontario, Canada on a recent publication (Rup et al. 2010) to assess the risk of ballast water related introductions in the Great Lakes. In this study, the authors looked at ballast water data from vessels operating within the lake system (Lakers) to assess the risk of species being moved from an initial entry point to other parts of the lake system. They found that the transfer of ballast water within the lake system was an important factor in the secondary spread of introduced species.

Rup M.P., S.A. Bailey, C.J. Wiley, M.S. Minton, A.W. Miller, G.M. Ruiz and H.J. MacIsaac. 2010. Domestic ballast operations on the Great Lakes: potential importance of Lakers as a vector for introduction and spread of nonindigenous species. Can. J. fish. Aquat. Sci. 67: 256-268