There are millions of stowaways headed for the Arctic.
Sea-dwelling organisms that could wreak havoc on Arctic ecosystems are hiding in and on ships that increasingly are using shipping routes in the North.
A report published by Whitman Miller, an ecologist at the Marine Invasions Research Laboratory at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, says that invasive species are destined for the Arctic with the influx of vessels.
Melting sea ice has opened routes in the Arctic -- the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route -- making a quicker path from one side of the world to the other.
"The economic draw of the Arctic is enormous," Miller wrote in the report. "Whether it's greater access to the region's rich natural resource reserves or cheaper and faster inter-ocean commercial trade, Arctic shipping will reshape world markets.
"If unchecked, these activities will vastly alter the exchange of invasive species, especially across the Arctic, north Atlantic and north Pacific oceans."
Organisms from ports can cling to the undersides of a ship's hull or hunker down in the large tanks of seawater inside a ship.
"Ships are moving over the Arctic and can carry a tremendous number of species in their ballast water ... connecting ports in a way that they have not been connected before," Miller said recently.
The danger lies in the likelihood of these critters taking over their new environment and killing off native species.
NATIVE SPECIES AT RISK
Miller said that for the past century or so, ships traveled between oceans through the Panama or Suez canals. Both offered warm, tropical water, and temperature stress often killed or weaken hangers-on.
"In the Panama Canal, species on the hulls of ships also had to cope with a sharp change in salinity, from marine to completely fresh water," the report said. "The Arctic passages contain only cold, marine water."
If species are able to survive cold temperatures, the odds of surviving in the Arctic are good.
Water in ballast tanks is used to balance and stabilize ships. Ocean liquid is sucked in and spit out accordingly, organisms and all, depending on the ship's load and conditions.
"Typically this is done in coastal waters and in ports where you're offloading or loading cargo, and in doing so, you're not just taking water, you're taking all the biological and planktonic communities with that water," Miller said.
"The potential biological cocktail that you can concoct is pretty staggering," Miller said.
Ballast tanks on large ships can hold up to 100,000 metric tons of water, Miller said. And once you start multiplying that by the number of vessels heading north, the amount of water and living organisms exchanged is enormous.
When a species arrives in a new environment, it has no established predators, said Gary Freitag, a marine biologist with the Marine Advisory Program in Ketchikan.
DIFFICULT TO DETECT
"They have a tendency to prey on the native species, eat the food of the native species and take over habitat of the native species," he said. "And in most cases, they're a little more resilient because if they're able to establish in an unfamiliar habitat, they're pretty flexible critters."
If left unchecked, invasive species spread rapidly; they can be difficult to detect until the damage is done.
"We don't quite know what will happen in the Arctic because we haven't experienced invasive species really in the Arctic yet," Freitag said.
A few years ago, Freitag traveled to the North Slope to collect data from the waters off Point Barrow. The effort was stymied by a storm, he said, but he is planning more work in the North.
A current threat in other parts of Alaska is the European green crab, a hardy crustacean that can thrive in a variety of climates.
Other crabs and tunicates -- the most common called "rock vomit" -- are also on the list of invasive species infecting Alaska waters.
Some of the most-wanted are found clinging to the ship's hulls, while others ride in ballast tanks.
In a year, 50 to 60 million metric tons of water comes to the U.S. from overseas via ballast water.
LURKING IN BALLAST TANKS
In Alaska, between 2009 and 2012, 14 million metric tons of ballast water was discharged annually in ports, said Danielle Verna, a graduate fellow with the Smithsonian Environmental Research center. Verna has been studying invasive species in ballast water for years and has conducted research in Valdez and Cordova.
"When you're talking about risk of invasive species in the Arctic, you have to consider the increased vessel traffic," she said. Her thesis work looked at factors that influence risk such as age of ballast water, similarities between the source and where the water is discharged, and species richness in the source port.
"Those are all factors that you would have to consider in an Arctic environment," Verna said.
In the U.S. there are mandatory ballast water management regulations in place. Ships coming to the U.S. from overseas are required to exchange ballast water with open-ocean water at least 200 nautical miles from land.
COAST GUARD RULES
The idea behind that, Miller said, is that organisms picked up in the open ocean will have a lessened chance of survival when dumped into a coastal ecosystem, and vice versa.
A couple of years ago, the U.S. Coast Guard came out with a ruling that limited the allowable number of living organisms dumped in ports via ballast water. Reducing the number can be done by onboard treatment systems in the form of chemical additives or filtration methods.
"The beauty of an onboard treatment system is that it (allows) that ship to operate anywhere in the world without the fear of introducing organisms from other places," Miller said, adding that organisms have been brought elsewhere from the U.S. and become invasive species.
These rules are enforced at ports across the U.S. for commercial ships. Ships are supposed to report ballast activity to the National Ballast Information Clearinghouse, which then analyzes the data and provides information to the U.S. Coast Guard.
"The technology is lagging behind the regulations so currently there are no approved onboard treatment technologies," said Miller, who is also director of the National Ballast Information Clearinghouse.
Other preventive measures crews can take are simply not discharging ballast water in the coastal system.
"There are regulations on the books and they are enforceable," Miller said.
A ballast water treaty on its way to being ratified by the maritime branch of the United Nations would see global standards for ballast water management.
However, ballast water management regulations don't help with species that hitch rides on ships' hulls.
HITCHHIKING ON SHIP HULLS
"We've been working on ballast water issues for 30 or 35 years, and I think we're finally on the right track," Miller said.
Hull fouling species like barnacles, mussels, sponges and algae are a little trickier, Miller said.
Typically ships use a coating on the hulls. Some are toxic to hitchhiking sea creatures, while other coatings make the surface too smooth for things to latch onto.
"Currently it's a really difficult problem because it's not like you have the opportunity to filter the water; partly it's a process of good hull husbandry and making sure that your ship is clean."
Until now, the Arctic has had relatively low exposure to invasive species. That's the good news.
"Now is the time to advance effective management options that prevent a boom in invasions and minimize their ecological, economic and health impacts," said the report's co-author, Greg Ruiz.
This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.
By JILLIAN ROGERS