Scientists face bay invaders

New research seeks methods to kill alien species

July 22, 2008|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun reporter

Scientists at a new research center in Maryland will test strategies to kill invasive species and prevent them from hurting the Chesapeake Bay, according to an announcement scheduled for today.

More than 150 exotic species are now thriving in the bay, often hitchhiking here in the ballast water of ships from Asia and Europe. A few of the most aggressive, like the oyster-killing parasite MSX, have overwhelmed native creatures.

The new Maritime Environmental Resource Center at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science will be based in Solomons in Southern Maryland and receive about $5 million over five years from the state and federal governments.

Scientists plan to test ultraviolet light, filters and chemicals to see how effective they are at destroying exotic larvae and other creatures inadvertently transported in ship ballast tanks. Initial studies have already begun aboard a ship in Baltimore.

"Everyone understands that our waterways are our lifeblood ... and we want to make sure our waterways are free of invasive species," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, chairman of a subcommittee on maritime transportation, who helped to coordinate the effort.

Researchers plan to demonstrate some of the techniques this morning aboard the MV Cape Washington, a military cargo ship anchored at the Port of Baltimore. Three other ships will also be used as testing grounds for eradication techniques.

Four years ago, the Coast Guard began requiring large ships crossing the oceans to stop about 200 miles off the American shores and dump their ballast water, replacing it with ocean water.

Salt water from the open ocean kills many of the fresh water organisms that hitchhike from port to port. But this technique doesn't kill all exotic creatures.

For example, Chinese mitten crabs have been popping up in the Chesapeake Bay over the past two years. It's not clear whether they hitched a ride before the regulations took effect or survived the open-ocean ballast exchange.

Scientists worry that populations of these hairy-clawed Asian invaders could explode, with the newcomers gobbling worms and other food needed by native crabs and fish.

"Ballast water exchange is better than nothing - but we need to further develop and prove better systems," said Mario Tamburri, a University of Maryland biologist who will direct the new center.

The center will have four or five full-time employees, including an engineer and technicians who will test strategies and calculate how expensive and effective they are, Tamburri said.

The researchers won't be performing law-enforcement duties or inspecting random ships pulling into Baltimore Harbor, he said.

Instead, they will treat the Cape Washington and three other dedicated vessels, including a barge, as floating labs.

About $700,000 a year for the research will come from the Maryland Port Adminstration and other state agencies, with the rest of the funding coming from federal agencies.

The researchers will be providing data to the Coast Guard, which is trying to determine whether it should impose more strict regulations requiring treatment of ballast water.

The House of Representatives approved a bill in April to require treatment of all ballast water starting next year. The Senate has yet to approve the treatment requirement, and it's not yet clear what technologies will qualify as effective treatment.

University of Maryland scientists will be working with another major center for the study of exotic species, the Marine Invasions Lab at the Smithsonsian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater.

Greg Ruiz, director of the Marine Invasions Lab, said that his group has spent years studying where exotic species come from and why they cause problems.

Now the new center at the University of Maryland will take that knowledge to a practical level, studying which technical systems can best eradicate invasive hitchhikers, Ruiz said.

It's not a simple question, because some strategies - like adding bleach or other chemicals to ballast water to kill organisms -- could have unintended consequences to the enviroment when they're released, he said.

tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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