On the Green Beat

New expansion plans at the Port of Oakland could significantly increase the number of alien exotic organisms in San Francisco Bay.

Port of Last Resort

A few years ago, I joined a group of folks for an early morning walk along Alameda’s Crown Beach. We were taking part in a class sponsored by the park district, and we trailed along behind a local scientist, who carried buckets, strainers, and other tools of his trade. Down near the water’s edge we stopped and began digging in the sand, washing it through strainers to reveal the creatures hidden beneath its surface.

Our guide began pointing out critters that bore the names of faraway places: Manila clams, European green crabs, Asian Littlenecks, Atlantic Oyster Drillers. That cream-colored “sea slug” was believed to have come from New Zealand. The ancestors of those barnacles covering a mussel had clung to the pilings of some East Coast pier. Decorative “sea lettuce” was originally from Polynesia. Toward the end of the morning, someone picked up the shell of a chambered whelk, the biggest snail found on the West Coast. “Of course, it’s not from here,” the researcher told us.

By that time we were no longer surprised at his declaration. In fact very few–disturbingly few–of the plants or animals that we encountered that morning were native to the bay and its environs. They hailed from ports of call on almost every continent, but to discover how they arrived, we had only to raise our eyes and gaze across the waters of the bay. With few exceptions, these foreign marine creatures journeyed here in–and on–the hulls of the thousands of ships that pass through the Golden Gate every year.

Exotic organisms have been entering the bay since the 1850s. As shipping traffic increased, so did the number of invasive plants and animals, ranging from protozoans to seaweeds to arthropods and fish. Scientists estimate that in the years between 1961 and 1995, an average of one new exotic was introduced every fourteen weeks, and that there are now at least 234 exotic species in the bay and its environs. Some samplings have found that up to 99 percent of the biomass in a given area is made up of nonnatives.

In recent decades, many of these nonnatives have hitched rides on ships bound for the port of Oakland. And now environmentalists fear that the port’s latest expansion projects will make the problem even worse. Two groups, the Center for Marine Conservation (CMC) and the San Francisco BayKeeper, have filed a lawsuit aimed at pressuring the port to undertake more stringent measures to reduce the numbers of exotics invading local waters.

Stranger in a Strange Land
Most of the nonnatives arrive in the ballast water of ships arriving from overseas. In order to remain stable in heavy seas, a ship must ride fairly low in the water. If it leaves a port empty or lightly loaded, then several compartments in its hull, known as “sea chests,” are filled with water. When the ship arrives at its destination and begins taking on cargo, those compartments are emptied. The water in the sea chests inevitably contains various marine organisms, which are then discharged into the water near the pier.

If conditions are right, nonnatives can flourish and decimate existing flora and fauna. In the San Francisco Bay, for example, the introduction of the shimofuri goby from Japan has helped contribute to the rapid decline of the endangered tidewater goby. The European green crab has also found a niche here, preying on Dungeness crabs and Pacific oysters. Asian clams have posed a double threat by reducing the food supply for several species of local shrimp that serve as food sources for native fish. The clams also bioaccumulate toxic metals that are present in bay waters. When eaten by harbor seals, sea otters, and other marine mammals, concentrated poisons in the clams are passed up the food chain.

In some ways, exotic species are even more dangerous than chemical pollutants, says Linda Sheehan, CMC’s Pacific Region director. While most pollutants will eventually degrade or be washed out to sea, a few introduced organisms can quickly multiply into a major problem. “Once they are established, they are here to stay,” she says.

The CMC/BayKeeper lawsuit was filed in US District Court earlier this year. It doesn’t directly name the port as a defendant, but its targets are clearly two Oakland projects: the dredging of shipping lanes to a fifty-foot depth; and the construction of berths 55-58, including the building of new marine terminals and ten huge loading cranes. Environmentalists claim that the projects will increase the number of ships coming into the bay and, as a result, increase the danger of bringing more invasive species into local waters.

The lawsuit challenges the permits granted by the US Army Corps of Engineers, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Marine Fisheries Services. The suit charges that the three federal agencies made only minimal references to the invasive species problem in their environmental documentation, and it says they should have required more stringent mitigation measures from the port before granting the permits. If the suit is successful, both the dredging and marine terminal projects could be delayed.

But port officials say they are doing as much as they can to alleviate the problem. “This is a very important issue,” says Jim McGrath, the port’s environmental planning manager. “I’m very pleased that my board and executive director feel that we should be a part of the solution.” They list a number of steps they have already taken, including participating in studies of treatment methods for ballast water, such as filtering or chemically processing it to eliminate living organisms. McGrath points out that Oakland was the first port in the US to require that ships exchange their ballast water with seawater before entering the bay, so that any stowaway creatures would end up in the deep ocean where they are less likely to survive. He also says that the port’s board has backed stronger regulations at state and federal levels, including a California law requiring ballast water exchange.

“I think that’s great,” responds Sheehan. But she says the port still hasn’t gone far enough. Ballast water exchange at sea is only partially effective, and a few organisms still end up in the bay when the ships take on cargo. Sheehan also notes that ships moving from one California port to another are exempt from the rules, and a captain can skip the exchange if conditions at sea are too hazardous. Sheehan says that the port should commit to a major pilot project, perhaps in conjunction with East Bay MUD, to treat the water by running it into the district’s sewage treatment system.

Dreading Dredging
Plus, the port’s dredging and expansion projects could make things worse, Sheehan argues. Not only will the number of ships increase, they will also be faster and more likely to come directly from faraway ports without any intermediate stops. According to Sheehan, this means that the organisms they are carrying will have a higher survival rate, both inside the ships’ hulls and after they are pumped into the bay. “It’s the living creatures we care about,” she says.

The port’s McGrath concedes that the number of ships coming in will increase as a result of the expansion project, but he says that the fifty-foot dredging will actually decrease the amount of ballast water dumped into the bay. That’s because the newer, larger ships that will be able to enter the harbor are designed to carry less ballast water than the older ones do. He does agree that ballast exchange is not an adequate long-term solution, but he says that the technology hasn’t been developed yet to eliminate the exotics from the ship’s water. Each proposal has its own problems: adding chemicals could result in dumping more chemicals into the bay; filtration could add extra hours, if not days, to the time a ship has to stay tied up at the dock; and running large quantities of saltwater through EBMUD’s sewage treatment system could corrode pipes and other equipment designed to accommodate fresh water. Ultimately, he says, the port has made a serious effort to solve the problem. “It wasn’t just a lick and a promise.”

Those arguments will be played out in front of a judge in the coming months. In the meantime, CMC and BayKeeper have also filed a separate lawsuit against the US Environmental Protection Agency. They want the EPA to put ballast water under the mandates of the federal Clean Water Act, which would mandate more stringent permitting and monitoring requirements than the current rules do. Sheehan says that the awareness of the problems of invasive organisms is growing every day, and that stricter regulations are inevitable. “This is not anything that’s going backwards–it’s going forwards.” She adds that Oakland could get a leg up on its competitors by having a workable system in place as soon as possible. “It’s to the port’s advantage to take the lead.”

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