Zebra Mussels and Mitten Crabs and Govt. Regs, Oh My!

Perhaps the criticism that the government treats invasive species as a regional, rather than international, problem applies to the press as well.

If you have ever been to the Far East and eaten a Chinese mitten crab, you will know that they are delicious. But if you have ever been to the American East and read the Baltimore Sun, you will know that mitten crabs are also an invasive species. In Maryland, the local blue crab is still the preferred variety, and when two of the fuzzy-clawed Asian delicacies turned up near the Chesapeake Bay this summer, the newspaper ran at least five stories about the potentially disruptive crustacean, the last in August.

Scientists remain unsure whether mitten crabs are spreading and threatening the ecosystem. On Wednesday, however, the Christian Science Monitor used them to introduce a well-done feature on the suspected means of their arrival: the ballast water of international cargo ships. Since zebra mussels, a native of the Caspian Sea, arrived in the Great Lakes area in 1988, scientists, government officials and the press have suspected that many invasive species have hitched rides in the bellies of ocean-going tankers. When leaving port, the boats take on massive amounts of water for stabilization and then dump it, and anything else drawn up, at their destination.

Reporters have written hundreds of stories about zebra mussels and other interlopers over the last two decades. Invasive species, in general, are a favorite subject of the environmental press, and ballast water (among other conduits) has received ample attention. Historically, many publications have bemoaned the lack of regulations governing such discharges. In December 2005, the Washington Post’s editorial section ran a short letter from the president of the American Association of Port Authorities. Although the Bush administration had committed to removing invasive species from the Great Lakes, the organization was “more concerned that the federal government continues to focus on nuisance species as a regional challenge when the issue is international … only a strong national ballast water management program will help stop the release of nuisance species by commercial vessels.”

There are some regulations in place. The Coast Guard prohibits dumping ballast water within 200 nautical miles of shore. In 2005, Michigan enacted a law that will require ships to prove that they will not discharge any ballast, or that if they do, they will prevent the escape of organisms.

But many critics say the missing ingredient is the Environmental Protection Agency’s willingness to regulate ballast water under the Clean Water Act.

Finally, in the last month, authorities have taken provisional steps to more thoroughly regulate the dumping and treatment of ballast water. This should have been a major story for the environmental press — but all of sudden there is a dearth of coverage and commentary. On September 18, a federal district judge in San Francisco ordered the EPA to restrict the discharge of invasive species and comply with the Clean Water Act by September 2008. On the same day, in Sacramento, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation that directs the state Lands Commission to create ballast water standards and have discharges completely species-free by 2020. The feature in the Christian Science Monitor provided a great summary of the concerns about ballast water, but only briefly mentioned the California legislation and completely ignored the court order. Three days after the two initiatives, the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a good piece of local reporting about the struggle to restore the Great Lakes’ native ecosystem, but it failed to notice what had just happened in the West.

Meanwhile, not far away, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in Wisconsin was the only newspaper to run a timely and thorough analysis of the federal court order, which the EPA is likely to appeal. Dan Egan’s article on September 20 provides an account of the legislation leading up to Judge Susan Illston’s decision, and investigates the likely challenges it will encounter before it can have any real effect. The ballast water legislation signed by Schwarzenegger is also likely to face many hurdles, at the least the realization of its goals.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Mark Martin, though one of the only local reporters to notice the story, wrote less than 300 words on the subject, and failed to scrutinize the legislation, which is vague on how targets will be achieved. A week later, the Business Times in Singapore addressed that question by running an interesting story about a local company’s development of an onboard ballast water treatment system. The United Nations’ International Maritime Organization, which is responsible for global standards, met in London last June to discuss such options, but there was little notice in the American media.

Perhaps the American Association of Port Authorities’ criticism that the government treats invasive species as a regional, rather than international, problem applies to the press as well. As always, there has been a healthy dose of recent reporting on invasive species. At the end of September, Newsday ran an article about the hunt for invasive sea squirts in Long Island Sound. This week, the Orange County Register in Southern California printed a story about the appearance of brown widows, a South American cousin of the local black widow. They are both examples of good environmental stories, and worth reading. But the Journal Sentinel, which just ran a long series on Asian carp in the Great Lakes (again by Dan Egan), was one of the few to widen the scope of its reporting.

Historically, the American press has been relentless about following the proliferation of invasive species and tracking their migrations from foreign lands. Reporters have also chronicled the intrusion of native U.S. creatures abroad. Those stories are fun, with built-in exotic appeal. Now, as popular calls to regulate ballast water are beginning to produce action, the press needs to be more critical of these less exciting, but ultimately more important, efforts to produce change.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.