While climate change and overpopulation contribute to what the United Nation’s 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment calls the “globalization of nature,” commercial ships navigating the world in the service of global trade are primarily responsible for transporting non-native species of plants and animals to areas where they did not exist before. The oceans are no longer the protective barriers they once were, as many large ships make trips to too many places, leaving in their wake pollution formed from living organisms that is effectively displacing and killing native species in every region of the globe. 

Take as an example what is happening to the watershed that contains one-fifth of the world’s and 95 percent of U.S. surface fresh water where a 2006 U.S. Fish and Wildlife survey found that fishing has decreased 30 percent over the past 5 years. The St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes’ highly sought native trophy fish have suffered severe die-offs as a result of a new invasive virus, just one of over 186 invasive species now living in these waters, one-third of which are native to the Baltic Sea, which contains over 100 creatures from outside its region, a third of which are native to the North American Great Lakes. Similar scenarios are being played out worldwide as global trade escalates.

Biodiversity sustains the world that sustains our life. If a region’s biologically diverse spectrum of native plants and animals fails to remain reasonably intact, ecosystems collapse. Biodiversity, so essential for life, is now a casualty of globalization. Those suffering the most severe consequences of global commerce are not participants in trade, but are the earth’s poorest citizens, living close to and off the land. Those producing the traffic and reaping the profits of global trade are apparently estranged from the immediacy of our shared plight. 

World exports have grown on average 6 percent annually since the 1950s and transportation forecasts anticipate that the global shipping industry will more than double by the year 2020. A comparable increase in the spread of invasive species and loss of biodiversity will unquestionably follow unless stringent safeguards are adopted and enforced.

Draw back slightly from the fast-track mindset of the last decades and it is clear that trade has been far from free. Transnational corporations (TNCs), those corporations that operate in more than one country simultaneously, have been exploiting the world’s environment and thriving in the process. These business entities have grown in number from about 7,000 parent TNCs in 1970 to 77,000 parent companies operating today, responsible for spawning over 770,000 foreign subsidiaries—and roughly 70 percent of world trade.

The Swiss electrical engineering giant ABB has facilities in 140 countries. Royal Dutch/Shell explores for oil in 50 countries, refines in 34, with markets in 100. America’s largest grain company, Cargill, has operations in 54 countries. On average, the largest TNCs have foreign affiliates in 40 countries and according to a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) 2005 Working Paper, almost half of all U.S. trade is intra-company— trade occurring between units of the same TNC. Two-thirds of global trade, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), is a direct outcome of foreign direct investment (FDI) decisions that influence where TNC facilities are established, adding more stops to a seemingly limitless number of ports-of-call in the segmented production of globally traded goods.

The goods transported in TNC trade, by and large shipments of components and parts, the bits and pieces of products that are eventually assembled and finally distributed to the consumer market, now account for the largest share of international trade. Piecemealing the manufacturing process over an expansive geographic area and multiple political boundaries allows TNCs to shift costs, slash tax burdens, and increase profits—but fragmented production places a greater burden on the environment by requiring an increase in the maritime transportation sector, generally seen as the most economical and reliable mode of transportation over long distances. As UNCTAD puts it, shipping “utilizes nature’s free highway, the sea; unlike road and rail, this does not require infrastructure investments along the entire journey.” At the beginning of 2007, and for the first time in history, the world shipping fleet broke the 1 billion deadweight tons mark, representing an over 8 percent increase in the utilization of “nature’s free highway.” 

In preparing for its 12th Ministerial Conference (UNCTAD XII) held in Accra, Ghana from April 20-25, UNCTAD organized a December pre-event in Switzerland on the globalization of port logistics to create, as they put it, an “enabling environment for transport, logistics and trade facilitation.”

TNCs continue to dictate terms while world governments and the international organizations created to oversee trade policy willingly consent to their every whim. The World Trade Organization (WTO) is one of globalization’s best enablers and operates as if environmental protection, health and food safety, and democratic transparency are inconsequential nuisances necessitating little if any attention. As stated in the agreement that created it, the WTO requires that “all countries shall ensure conformity of their domestic laws, regulations, and administrative procedures” to facilitate the seamless and speedy shipment of goods worldwide.

Until the 1870s the material used as ballast to stabilize a ship when it was not carrying cargo was usually stone or dirt. Today’s steel-hulled ships pump water in and out of internal tanks to add and discharge ballast as needed. Any plant or creature small enough to pass through the ships’ intake valves and pumps will end up as stowaways, their unscheduled trip taking them to ports unknown. The use of water is a quick and cheap fix for the shipping industry, but a long-term and expensive problem for the earth.

The use of water for ballast coupled with the development of larger and faster ships completing their voyages in ever-shorter times has improved the odds for greater numbers of species surviving the voyage from one port to another. Ships manufactured over the last 20 years have incrementally increased speeds by 7 to 9 knots. Korea recently unveiled a ship they boast can cut two days off the transit time from Asia to Europe. A start-up company, Fastship, Inc., is looking for investors to begin an express freight service for “high-value, time-sensitive goods” between Europe and the U.S. that will see vessel speeds of 38 to 40 knots and cut one half the time off the fastest ships sailing today.

At present, the standard best practice for vessels to rid their ballast of unwanted species before they reach land is to conduct a mid-ocean ballast water exchange, commonly called “swish and spit.” The U.S. Coast Guard acknowledges that “the effectiveness of this practice varies and not all vessels are able to conduct exchange.” With the exception of a few shippers who cling to the unsubstantiated claim that swishing and spitting is highly efficient, it is generally agreed that more needs to be done. Recent research even calls into question the basic premise of this management option, that the organisms in the fresh ocean water will not be more of a problem than those present in the original ballast water. Genetic research by the U.S. Geological Survey suggests that the invasive virus responsible for killing thousands of fish in the Great Lakes appears to be genetically linked to a strain of the virus found off the North Atlantic coast near New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

It took the 167 members of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations agency “responsible for improving maritime safety and preventing pollution from ships,” 15 years to agree to the International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast Water and Sediments. The convention was adopted on February 13, 2004, but, according to IMO rules, the convention cannot take effect until 12 months after ratification by 30 states representing 35 percent of world merchant shipping tonnage. As of February 29, 2008 only 12 countries representing a mere 3.46 percent of the world’s tonnage had ratified the agreement, causing the IMO to delay the enforcement of the convention’s requirement that would have required ships built after 2009 to have effective ballast water treatment equipment installed. While the delay is the direct result of the international community’s failure to ratify the convention, the underlying cause for postponement is a lack of type-approved equipment that can effectively purge ballast water of organic pollution.

It may take another 15 years for the IMO convention to reap benefits, but the agreement is not worth the wait. Although tougher than the predominantly voluntary, commercially driven standards currently in place in the United States and most regions around the world, the standards set by the IMO convention on ballast water are weak. While the IMO convention would require all ships, new and old, to undertake ballast water management through various methods (“mechanical, physical, chemical, and biological”), the numeric standards it would impose are too low to catch the concentrations of organisms found, on average, in realistic ballast water samples. Considering that 10 billion tons of ballast water is discharged annually worldwide from approximately 40,000 ships, the IMO’s negligible limits on life forms will not reduce the risk of invasion. Additionally, the convention does not adequately address the problem of sediments that collect in the bottom of ships that provide a suitable environment for many species. The discharge of ballast water alone is not sufficient for the removal of creatures that may be living within the sediments, not to mention those species living on a ships’ outer hull, anchor, or deck.

The failure of the IMO convention to effectively purge living organisms from ships, while in itself a serious setback, could also efface national efforts meant to eliminate invasive species. The IMO’s minimal standards on ballast water are also fodder for the WTO, which has consistently utilized the low bar in establishing trade rules, and will only serve to further enable its penchant for downwardly harmonized, internationally agreed-upon standards.

The WTO, with guiding principles that err on the side of development and unfettered trade, does not endorse the precautionary principle and considers actions taken to raise a country’s level of protection as excessive and “disguised restrictions on international trade.” Nations need to prove to a biased WTO panel, in closed session, that their laws are a “necessity” as defined by the WTO. What the WTO considers “sufficient scientific evidence” and an “acceptable level of risk” are subjective assessments that have, nearly every time, favored trade over caution.

In the case of non-native species, the science and risks are complicated and more difficult to calculate and therefore not easily evaluated to the satisfaction of the WTO. It is difficult to anticipate with certainty, for example, exactly when a specific species will be introduced to a new region. Non-native species are neither easily observable nor possessing particular, predetermined consequences. Since some non-native species are purposely imported, claims of unwanted pests become diluted, especially when some species do no ostensible harm. Even when a species represents a clear danger, there is usually a sizeable lag between its arrival and its assessed ramifications. Further, since measures employed to prevent the entry of invasives have yet to pass the test of time and therefore come with no guarantees or with precise calculations of their cost effectiveness, the WTO wages arguments against these preventative measures. Nevertheless countries are compelled to provide them because once invasives are established in their new habitats, they are not easily controlled or eliminated. Additionally, the WTO recognizes that non-native species are just as likely to have a negative impact when transported within a nation’s boundaries from one region to another and, as such, would require oversight of domestic trade. If a country fails to exercise domestic oversight, the WTO could then claim any ban on global trade would be discriminatory. Using WTO reasoning, a country’s need for higher standards is difficult to prove and has yet to be successfully argued.

There is one hopeful exception. The highly politicized Canadian challenge to France’s complete ban on uses of all types of asbestos may provide a way out of the Catch 22 that constrains a solution to the problem of invasive species. In the 1990s mounting concern for safety in the face of real and immediate dangers created a worldview that asbestos was a killer. Canada argued, on behalf of its Quebec-based asbestos industry, that France’s ban was not based on adequate science and that asbestos use could be made harmless through regulation. This challenge, however, did not succeed in eclipsing the overriding public perception that asbestos was a dangerous substance. The WTO ruled in favor of France’s right to maintain its ban for the protection of public health, acknowledging that, in this instance, the will of the people was paramount.

If the real and immediate dangers of trafficking in “biological pollutants” were to provoke an audible outcry, equal to that once raised against asbestos, then the WTO may be forced to defer to the voice of the people and refrain from its condemnation of national laws in support of biodiversity. It is long past time to turn the tide on trade. A biodiverse planet capable of providing the essentials of life is a good place to take a stand, while we still can.

Bills dealing with ballast water management currently in committees of the 110th Congress—and there are almost a dozen this session—set compliance standards for ballast water 100 times more protective than the IMO’s, which is a good and necessary step, but they also set in place measures that would repeatedly and indefinitely postpone the date by which the new, stronger standards would come into effect. They also go as far as to assure the maritime industry that they will not be overburdened with requirements to install expensive new technology to meet the standards when current estimates put the cost to outfit each vessel at $300,000, well beyond what shippers say they will pay. Moreover, the bills are weak on the treatment of tank sediments, ignore hull fouling, and are mute on domestic trade and short sea shipping that contribute to the transportation of non-native species from region to region within the country.

Most importantly, as currently written, a number of these bills would undercut one of the cornerstones of environmental legislation, the Clean Water Act (CWA), which provides for citizen oversight, empowering the public with the right to judicial review and enforcement, and which also protects a state’s ability to act on its own behalf. Under CWA, states can implement their own regulations as long as they are consistent with the Act. Laws in California and Michigan are already more stringent than the proposed legislation before Congress and recent U.S. District Court decisions have found in favor of their regulations and the CWA—determining that the two acting in concert can effectively control the problem of invasive species. It is unclear why certain legislators, in their efforts to achieve a nationally binding standard for ballast water, would entertain weakening the CWA just as it has been validated by the federal judiciary.

Invasive zebra clam attacking native species and spreading

The pending ballast management bills in the House and the Senate have moved further than previous bills in previous sessions, but are still without the sense of urgency or resolve necessary to achieve a sea-change in global commerce. Decisions that would improve their effectiveness are being compromised and delayed through efforts more likely to protect the existing trading agenda than rally the public’s passion for restoring the planet’s biodiversity. Congress is moving at the glacial pace that created the Great Lakes. These lakes, and all other at-risk ecosystems around the globe, do not have that kind of time.

One new, established aquatic invasive species is discovered every six months in the Great Lakes and the cumulative impact from these exotics mutually assisting each other, which they have been shown to do, is what Dr. Anthony Ricciardi of Montreal’s McGill University tellingly terms “invasional meltdown.”


Karen Nadder Lago is a freelance journalist and librarian who has been advocating for sustainable water policy since 1978 when she became the executive director of a grassroots environmental group based in the 1000 Islands region of the St. Lawrence River. The job lasted five years, the passion a lifetime.