After delivering their cargo, large commercial vessels take on as much as 50,000 tons of water for stabilization, called ballast, which they discharge at their next port before picking up a new shipment.
For years, this practice led to the indiscriminate transfer from around the globe of millions of microorganisms, along with crabs and fish, to coastlines where they were not previously found, causing billions of dollars in environmental and economic damage.
Gregory Ruiz, a senior research scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, has spent three decades studying the transport of invasive species by cargo ships. In 1999, Ruiz developed a federal reporting system that exposed the scale and severity of this problem and that has been operating it ever since. His work prompted the federal government to impose tough enforcement policies and led to new and more effective shipboard ballast water management practices.
“Greg Ruiz’s program has effectively reduced the accidental importation of invasive species and protected our country’s ecosystem and had an impact worldwide,” said Lonnie Bunch, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. “His work has helped change the behavior of global shipping.”
Anson Hines, the director of the environmental research center, said the invasive species issue gained national prominence in the 1980s when zebra mussels were found in the Great Lakes, having arrived via ballast water that was discharged by large ships from Europe. The mussels rapidly spread throughout the region and into large rivers in Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California, filtering out algae that native species need for food, and attaching to and incapacitating native mussels.
This case and others, including imported microorganisms that killed oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, led to enactment of federal laws in1990 and later in 1996 dealing with invasive species. These laws included provisions regarding the management of ballast water, based in large part on the research and data provided by Ruiz and his team.
“At a time when coastlines worldwide are under threat from a variety of human impacts, we can thank Greg Ruiz for a decades-long effort to decrease the devastating economic impact of nonnative marine organisms,” Hines said. “His work informed the Coast Guard and Congress and helped advance key management practices now being implemented both in the U.S. and worldwide through the International Maritime Organization, the United Nations of shipping.”
For more than two decades, Ruiz has led the National Ballast Information Clearinghouse, a federal entity created by the National Invasive Species Act of 1996 that is responsible for collecting data on ballast water from more than 100,000 cargo ships that arrive annually at U.S. ports.
Ruiz and his team analyze the ballast water data by port and region across the nation, comparing ship delivery patterns to his online database of documented invasive species from coastal surveys and literature records. The data is shared in real time with states and territories as they seek to manage invasive species and, with its three million records, the database provides information on changes in patterns of global ballast water transport through time.
As part of his work, Ruiz compared the data reports to customs arrivals to show that initial voluntary reporting by ships achieved only 40% compliance with safe ballast water management practices. His analysis convinced federal regulators to impose significant fines in 2004 for ships not engaging in sound practices, resulting in 90% compliance by 2005.
In addition, Ruiz played a role in getting the shipping industry to adopt more environmentally friendly management techniques. While discharging ballast water from one port to another had been standard practice for decades, shipping companies some years ago began using an open ocean exchange technique where ships flush their ballast water at sea to exchange their organism-rich water drawn from coastal ports with organism-poor water taken from the middle of the ocean.
Working closely with the shipping industry, Ruiz showed that mid-ocean exchange can reduce plankton by 90%, but many organisms were still being released into the U.S. ports, due partly to a three-fold increase in the volume of ballast water being discharged.
Ruiz’s data helped propel the industry to begin using on-board treatment technologies as a safer alternative. Today, about 62% of ballast water is treated on board while the rest is largely processed through open-ocean exchange.
John McCarter, chair emeritus of the Board of Smithsonian Regents, said Ruiz not only made people aware of the problem, but he “identified the depths and complexity of the problem.”
“No one was doing this work across the country before him,” said McCarter, adding that Ruiz has “stayed the course for three decades and continues to have an impact.”
Ruiz said that along with the satisfaction of helping to lower the number of new invasive marine species in the United States and worldwide, he’s proud of developing a program that pulls together so many areas, including trade, shipping and biology.
“I’ve enjoyed interacting with a pretty diverse group of people,” Ruiz said. “Unless you understand the motivations and interests of people involved, it becomes hard to think about it holistically and figure out what can be done. We’re all part of the solution.”