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A Step Toward a Better Solution

Thursday, September 17th, 2009
This treatment system filters ballast water and then zaps it with UV light to kill remaining organisms. It underwent testing at the Maritime Environmental Resource Center in March 2009.

This treatment system filters ballast water and then zaps it with UV light to kill remaining organisms. It underwent testing at the Maritime Environmental Resource Center in March 2009.

One thing I’ve learned lately is that ballast water tanks that ships use for stability can cause big headaches.  For one thing, when filled with water they can act like an aquarium for all kinds of critters and carry them across oceans. Those species can set up shop in a whole new spot once they get dumped overboard at the next port of call.  For another thing, swapping ballast water in mid-ocean — the technique required by the U.S. and many other governments as a way to get rid of unwanted hitchhikers — can be dangerous. One freighter literally flipped on its side when a mid-ocean ballast water exchange went wrong.

I wrote about all this in an article for Chesapeake Quarterly last June, where I noted that many were calling for a change in approach to better protect ecosystems from invasive species.  Now the beginnings of change have come.

On August 28th, 2009, the Coast Guard published proposed rules that include standards for treating — not exchanging — ballast water. This opens the door for installing systems on board ships — things like filters, chemicals, UV rays, etc. — that kill organisms and eliminate the need for exchange.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) created standards for treatment in 2004, and technology companies have been busy developing systems to meet them, often borrowing ideas from the wastewater treatment field. But until now, the U.S. did not recognize treatment as a viable option. Ships were stuck spending time and manpower on exchange.

The Coast Guard’s new rules would change that.

Under the proposed regulations, all new ships built after January 1, 2012, must include treatment systems that meet standards regarding the number of living organisms allowed in discharged ballast water. The standards mirror the ones created by the IMO in 2004. Compliance on existing ships and those built before 2012 depends on their ballast capacity, with all ships using treatment systems by 2016. That’s Phase One.

Phase Two would require ships to comply with a standard that is about 1,000 times stricter, as of 2016.

Mario Tamburri, director of the Maritime Environmental Resource Center (MERC) in Baltimore, Maryland, calls the proposed rulemaking “a reasonable and logical way to go.” He notes that since the IMO’s 2004 convention on ballast water, only six systems have been certified as meeting the IMO — and now the U.S. — standard.

“It’s not real easy to do,” he says. He thinks the stricter Phase Two standard “should be the ultimate goal,” but that it will require innovation — “technologies or treatments that we haven’t even thought of yet.”

For this reason, he’s pleased that the Coast Guard has planned for a review process over the next several years to assess whether reaching such a high standard will be possible.

Tamburri and his team will be on the frontline testing treatment systems through their work at MERC. Before the new Coast Guard regulations, MERC primarily tested systems striving to achieve the IMO standard for use on foreign ships abroad. Now, systems could be installed on U.S. ships. He says that from now on any data collected at their test facility will also address Coast Guard needs.

The proposed regulations are available for public comment until November 27. After that, the Coast Guard and related agencies will work on addressing feedback and making necessary changes.

Tamburri doesn’t anticipate any major objections from either the environmental community or the shipping industry. Both groups are anxious for change. Given this, he’s hopeful the regulations will be finalized by early next year.

“There’s a lot of motivation to move now. To help solve the problem now.”

For all the coastal ecosystems throughout the world facing the effects of invasive species, now sounds like a good time.

To view the proposed rules visit:

A Female First

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

While probing the topic of invasive species for an article in Chesapeake Quarterly, I was struck by the diversity of people involved in this issue in some way. There are academics, biologists, engineers, and natural resource managers — people who grapple with invasive species day in and day out. Then there are those for whom invasive species become just one small part of their job. People like Jerome Brown and his inspection team from the U.S. Coast Guard, or Captain Escoto from the freighter, Tamoyo Maiden. And Kathy Metcalf from the shipping industry.

Whenever you speak with so many different people, you hear interesting stories — stories that can appear out of context, stories you want to pass on. Kathy Metcalf has one of those stories.

There’s not much decoration on the walls of Kathy Metcalf’s office at the Chamber of Shipping of America. To get to work, she takes the Amtrak train to Washington, D.C.’s Union Station from her home in Pennsylvania. Because of the long commute, she simply hasn’t bothered to schlep many personal belongings down in her years of working in Washington. Not even her college diploma – which becomes part of the story.

Metcalf graduated from high school in Dover, Delaware in 1972. The daughter of an Air Force officer, she dreamed of attending a United States Military Academy, particularly West Point. “I just thought it was the coolest thing in the world,” she says. A top student, she received nominations from her state senator, Pete du Pont, and applied for admittance to West Point as well as the Air Force and Naval Academies.

But there was one thing wrong with her application. She was not a “he.” The military academies all rejected Metcalf, sending her letters explaining that they could not accept her because she was female.

Though disappointed, Metcalf moved on and enrolled at the University of Delaware. In the fall of her sophomore year she was hanging out in her dorm room when someone came in and told her she had a call on the hall telephone. The caller’s identity shocked her.

It was Joe Biden, the newly minted senator from Delaware.

Biden had been reviewing his predecessor’s files. He said, “I understand you’re interested in going to one of the federal academies,” Metcalf recalls. “And I just wanted you to know that the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy is opening its doors to women next year.”

Getting past the fact that a U.S. Senator was calling her in her dorm was hard enough, Metcalf remembers. Realizing that this could be her opportunity to attend a military academy was even harder. It wasn’t West Point. But it was as close to her dream as she could get at the time. She told the Senator that she was definitely interested. Visiting the campus in Kings Point, NY, with her father helped seal the deal. She fell in love with the place.

When the Merchant Marine Academy formally accepted Metcalf, she became the first woman appointed to a federal academy “by about 2 hours and 13 minutes.” But who’s counting? The Academy called Senator Biden first. He held a press conference in his office in Wilmington, complete with television crews. Metcalf, who was a bit embarrassed by the hoopla, puts the experience in perspective. “I’m not anything special. It’s a good example that it’s better to be lucky than smart any day.”

Metcalf started the Academy with 16 other women; 8 of them graduated. After graduation, she launched into a career in the shipping business and ultimately earned her law degree and began working in Washington, D.C. on issues facing the shipping industry. Issues like combating invasive species.

Years after Senator Biden helped her earn an appointment to the Merchant Marine Academy, Metcalf re-introduced herself to him on one of her Amtrak train rides into D.C. Biden was a regular on the route from Wilmington to Washington, and Metcalf would see him occasionally. She told him the story of how he had shaped her life, and he said he remembered her.

But Metcalf hasn’t seen Biden on the train recently. She thinks she knows why.

“I hear he moved,” she deadpans.

Joking aside, she says she was excited for him to get the opportunity to be vice president. She knows a few things herself about seizing opportunities.

Blue Crab Mystery

Friday, September 5th, 2008

Visitors to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor were in for a surprise earlier this week. Hundreds of blue crabs lined the shallow water between the Maryland Science Center and the Rusty Scupper restaurant, about a 150-yard distance.

Though an iconic image throughout the Harbor, blue crabs are usually more likely to be seen on a dinner plate at Phillips Restaurant than in the murky waters of the Patapsco River.

The sheer number of crabs – I estimated over 350 – led me to suspect something was up. Could it be a jubilee – an event where crabs gather near the surface and on shore to escape oxygen-deprived water?

Mike Naylor, a biologist at Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MDNR), doesn’t think so. After looking at the pictures he noted that had it been a jubilee, he would have expected to see crabs breaking the surface. Instead, these crabs seemed perfectly content to stay in the water. Naylor also noted that some of the crabs were exhibiting normal mating behavior, which may be unlikely if they were stressed.

crabs swimming

Click to play video of blue crabs in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Photo and video by Kyle Smits

When I went back to the spot the following evening, the number of crabs had dropped significantly – probably less than 50 remained.

So what caused this unusual crab gathering? No one seems to know for sure. Dissolved oxygen readings taken about 36 hours after the event were within the normal range. But levels can change quickly. I’ll be sure to post again if I get an answer as to what brought the crabs together in such large numbers.

Whatever the reason, it was a great view of nature in my urban neighborhood. And it seemed to remind those walking by that the ecosystem of the Inner Harbor is more than just its seafood restaurants and T-shirt shops.

Information on blue crabs:

Chesapeake Quarterly, Counting Crabs in Winter, Volume 5 Number 4

If it’s not local, is it still sustainable?

Monday, June 30th, 2008

Chef Spike Gjerde unloads salmon.This past winter I spoke with Baltimore chef Spike Gjerde about fish from far away for the article “A Good Catch: Serving Up Sustainable Seafood.” Gjerde serves wild Alaska salmon at Woodberry Kitchen, even though the restaurant’s motto is “celebrating the traditions and ingredients of the Chesapeake region.” Gjerde’s committed to serving local and sustainable cuisine. Though it’s hardly local, he offers Alaska salmon because he believes it’s from one of the best-managed fisheries in the world. It’s a balancing act, he says. For him, the sustainability of the fish makes up for it being from a waterbody 3,500 miles away.

Now — several months later, with gas prices soaring and talk of carbon footprints buzzing — I’m wondering, does it really?

What happens when that fish takes flight? That’s a lot of jet fuel between Bristol Bay and Baltimore.

Should Alaska salmon — or any other “sustainable” fish from distant waters for that matter — really be considered sustainable seafood in Maryland? Sure the fishery may be well managed and abundant, but does the trans-continental journey the fish takes to become our dinner jive with what it means to be sustainable?

This question has plagued the organic movement as well. Organic tomatoes from Chile and apples from New Zealand may be grown in an environmentally friendly way, but some argue that once they’re shipped to far-flung locales, greenhouse gas emissions offset their environmental benefit.

The oft-heard mantra to “eat local” is a response to this quandary. With the increasing number of neighborhood farmer’s markets and co-ops, although you may have to search, you can usually substitute local organic produce for distant fare without sacrificing look or taste.

Seafood poses more of a challenge. No matter how hard you look, you won’t find a local version of wild–caught Alaska salmon at a Maryland fish counter.

If you’re shopping at a big-name supermarket you might not find any local fish at all. As Jack Greer reported in Bringing It All Back Home, large-scale retailers deal in huge volumes of fish from across the globe rather than small volumes caught close by. I’m more likely to see seafood from China than from the Chesapeake at my grocery store.

But we may be entering a new era — one where customers care about the carbon footprint of their food and where even those who don’t care are forced to make changes as retailers raise prices to offset the cost of transporting these worldly fish. Seeking local regional specialties like croaker, striped bass, spot, bluefish, and weakfish could provide an alternative to cutting seafood out of the budget.

This is where eco-conscious consumers ask: But are these local fish sustainable?

Seafood guides distributed by organizations like Seafood Watch and Blue Ocean Institute may help with the answer. These organizations list fish to avoid and those to enjoy based on analyses of things like abundance and management structure. Though the guides are met with skepticism from some fisheries experts who see them as incomplete, these icons of the sustainable seafood movement provide a useful primer for the average citizen trying to do the right thing at a restaurant or seafood counter.

In addition to a national guide, the Seafood Watch Program distributes regional guides — Maryland is considered part of the southeast. The regional guide lists striped bass and Atlantic croaker as a best choice, green on its stoplight scale. Bluefish isn’t listed on the southeast guide, though it places in the yellow column (good alternative) on the northeast guide. Seafood Watch doesn’t critique spot or weakfish. Blue Ocean Institute concurs regarding striped bass and bluefish. It doesn’t rate spot or croaker, but it does list weakfish as green.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s website bridges some of the gaps of the seafood guides. While the Commission doesn’t publish accessible pocket guides with color-coded ratings, they do provide background information on the status of 22 managed fisheries on the Atlantic seaboard. Those looking for in-depth details will find management plans, stock assessment reports, press releases, and meeting minutes. The site could prove a useful resource to concerned consumers, though it may take some effort to sift through the information.

A little extra effort seems to be the price for finding that sweet spot where local and sustainable seafood overlap. It’s right here in our blue backyard. We just have to look a bit harder.