PODCASTEnvironmentally Speaking EP 51: Ballast Water

September 12, 20220

Transcript: Ballast Water

CLARICE:  Hello, everybody.  Welcome to this week’s episode of Environmentally Speaking.  And I am so happy to welcome back my cohost.MARISA:  Hi, Clarice.  I’m Marisa Desautel, an environmental attorney here in Rhode Island.  And I was conspicuously absent from the last episode because in true honesty and full disclosure I’ve got a 16-year-old Miniature Pinscher that is the love of my life and he’s going through his end of life experience, so it’s a little touch and go these days, but I hope that the guest that you had was as awesome an I know he is.


MARISA:  Yeah.

CLARICE:  Leo was fantastic to talk to.  I am so happy we got to chat about food waste and what you do with it and all of its potential.  And before this conversation I didn’t really think there was a whole ton of potential other than composting it into soil, so.

MARISA:  Yeah.

CLARICE:  It was a really cool conversation.

MARISA:  Yeah.

CLARICE:  And as always lots of love to your sweet boy.

MARISA:  Leonard.

CLARICE:  Your old man Leonard.

MARISA:  Leonard.


MARISA:  So what are we talking about today?  And I think I cut off your introduction, so, please.

CLARICE:  Oh, everybody knows who I am.  I am Clarice.  I am coming in with your questions, comments, topics, things I want to talk about, things you might want to talk about.  And this week I had to pick.  So I was very lucky to spend last weekend down in the Cape and as many of your beachgoers know sometimes there are seagulls that pick up crabs and drop them from various heights to kill them and eat them.  And I knew this was something that seagulls did, but I had never seen them do it.  And the beach that we were at was really, really populated with tons of little green crabs.

And I was watching them do this and I knew it was a thing, but I had never seen it.  So when I got back home, I was telling my husband about it and he said, well, you know green crabs are a really invasive species.  I was like, no, I didn’t know that.  And he said, yeah, they came over to the States from the ballast tank of ships.  And I said, well, how do you know all of this.  And he said, well, once you research it that will be your episode.  So he just kind of gave me that little chestnut and told me to go do my homework.

MARISA:  The nugget.


MARISA:  Did you know anything about international shipping or how boats or vessels of that size actually work?  Because I think we should start there.

[0:02:43] CLARICE:  Yeah.  I knew what a ballast tank was, but other than knowing its function I didn’t really think of the ramifications and what that looks like.  So for you folks who are not nautical in any way – and that’s fine.  We still all love you – a large ship, once all the cargo is removed or possibly the way the cargo is loaded onto the ship they have those two tanks which are largely under the sea level that can rise and fall with water to help keep it balanced.

So think of the idea of like counterweights and how, you know, sometimes if you’re trying to balance you put your arms out for that weight distribution.  This is the same idea.  A large ship or a cargo ship will take in a lot of water when it needs more stability and more balance in a really controlled fashion.  So it has these two large tanks usually on either side.  Sometimes depending on the size of the ship it might be multiple tanks kind of lining the bottom sides.

MARISA:  And it will make the ship sink further into the ocean.

CLARICE:  Uh-huh.

MARISA:  So it makes it more stable in that regard, as well.

CLARICE:  Yeah.  So the whole idea of kind of the origin story of the green crab and this whole process is multiple ships were filling their ballast tanks with water.

MARISA:  And it’s just seawater, right?

CLARICE:  It’s just water.

MARISA:  It’s not some guy standing there with a hose.

CLARICE:  No.  No.

MARISA:  Like this is a large quantity of water.

CLARICE:  It’s literally whatever water is in the dock.  Whatever water the ship is in, that’s what they’re going to suck up.

MARISA:  Okay.

CLARICE:  So these ships were sucking up all of that water.  And think about it, when you’re at the – even at the beach, even at a lake, that water is full of everything.

MARISA:  Yeah.

CLARICE:  There’s seaweed.  There’s, in this case, crabs.  There’s tons and tons of life.  There could be fish.  There could be a bunch of things.  And then that ship carries that load of, you know, specific seawater from that region to wherever it’s going.  And in this case it took multiple ships, took these crabs that happen to have gotten sucked up and took them to America.

MARISA:  Where they plunged to their death.

CLARICE:  No.  They decided to have a great time.  They had a luxury cruise, had lots of – yes.  Oh, yeah.  They went transcontinental.

MARISA:  Are you doing that glass half full crap again?

CLARICE:  No.  No.  No.  It’s going to get worse.  And then they did what all happy crabs do.  They made lots of little crab babies and they dumped those little crab babies and crab mommies and daddies and also those crab whatevers off onto the American shore.

MARISA:  Where they were dropped from height and smashed to their death and then were ingested by a seagull.

[0:05:46] CLARICE:  No.  It’s worse.  They thrived.  And now we have in America a huge green crab population problem.  They are not native to America, as my beautiful story talked about.  They are an invasive species that are now consuming the resources in our local waters at alarming rates, thriving.  And just our hierarchy, our food chain, our environment was not expecting this new player coming in.  And now there’s this issue of an extreme abundance of these crabs and what on earth do we do with them.

MARISA:  Why do you keep glazing over the fact that these crabs die an awful death by plummeting from height and smashing on the ground?

CLARICE:  Because if they all died we wouldn’t have this bigger problem of what the heck do we do with all of these crabs everywhere.  I mean, sure some of them died, but the ones that made it made it and reproduced in a fashion in which we can’t keep up with them.  It’s a problem visitor.

MARISA:  So tell me then if you are concerned with the green crab sole like I am, why is it that the local ecosystem can’t just deal with it?

CLARICE:  From my understanding there is that sort of exploration and discovery curve, if you want to call it that, where the other animals in the environment just didn’t know what to do with them.  They were kind of figuring out, is this edible, is this something that we can handle.  There are the animals and organisms below the crab and now the crab is eating algae and bugs and the things that crabs typically eat and taking that away from other fish.  So the upper populations aren’t sure what to do with it.  The lower populations in the food chain are being starved out by it.  And, yes, this sounds silly.  It is a bunch of crabs.  But just to put it in perspective, in the late ‘80s when they started researching this crab problem it cost $22 million a year in damage.  And that’s ‘80s money, so Lord knows how much the 22 million in damages in today’s money.

MARISA:  Twenty-two million in crab damage?


MARISA:  What were they doing, breaking into banks and absconding gold bricks?

CLARICE:  They were just chipping away at the docks with their little pinchers for hours.

MARISA:  Really?

CLARICE:  No.  It was just kind of that – the entire ecosystem, that balance was all tipped.

MARISA:  Okay.

[0:08:38] CLARICE:  That kind of led me to this bigger question of if any of you folks have ever gone camping you know you cannot bring your own campfire wood to another site.  If I wanted to go from my house in Massachusetts to camping in New Hampshire, I would have to buy firewood in New Hampshire.  There’s a whole discussion of cross-contamination and how I can’t introduce foreign bugs and parasites and things like that.  When the FDA reviews food shipments, they test and go over the cargo batches of food for bugs and insects and parasites and things that could be problematic.  So why the heck can we put, you know, tons of gallons of water from anywhere in the globe to anywhere in the globe?  How come that’s allowed?

MARISA:  Probably for the same reason that recreational vessels are allowed to empty their black water tanks past the three nautical mile state jurisdictional boundary in the ocean.  It’s not very heavily regulated.


MARISA:  However, I also did some research on this topic and discovered something called the International Maritime Organization which put together some amendments to an international treaty aimed at preventing the spread of potentially invasive species in ships’ ballast water which was executed and became effective in October of 2019.  So there’s something on the books from an international perspective, but in my experience – and I haven’t had a chance to take a look at this particular treaty.

But like when you’re talking about the Paris Accord, it’s very narrative in nature and doesn’t contain a whole lot of real enforceable parameters and limits.  It’s kind of like stormwater in that capacity because it’s just very difficult to do anything other than say, we’re going to employ Best Management Practices.  And especially on an international level, you can imagine the difficulty in trying to enforce this type of treaty, so I doubt that it’s actually doing a whole lot of beneficial use.

CLARICE:  I have to agree with you.  The research I did was focused more nationally, specifically focusing on the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.  And they had done a lot of work tracking ships’ typical trade routes and what microorganisms and even so large as full animals were coming over in that process.

[0:11:41] MARISA:  Full animals?

CLARICE:  Well, crabs.  That counts as an animal.

MARISA:  Like a Zebra?  Oh, okay.  All right.  Sorry.

CLARICE:  Oh, like that whale I wished well one time.  I still haven’t lived that down.  And they also took a look at the Invasive Species Act of, you know, 1996.  And what was interesting, it was the same idea.  It wasn’t an international treaty discussing this, but they had looked at ways to sterilize the water before dumping it back in and developing methods that ships could do themselves, a lot of which involved UV radiation.

MARISA:  I was going to say UV lights, that kind of thing.

CLARICE:  Yeah.  There was some of that.  There was an electrochlorination process and a deox – deox – no.  Help me out.

MARISA:  Deoxidation.

CLARICE:  Thank you.

MARISA:  Oh, I wanted to let you keep going there.

CLARICE:  So, you know, they had talked about developing these methods and what was most effective and what was most approachable for ships to use, but it’s that same idea.  It’s self-reporting.

MARISA:  Yeah.

CLARICE:  It’s kind of on their own responsibility.  So it’s a weird topic.  It was very random, but I was kind of excited to learn about how this could all happen.

MARISA:  You know, and don’t you think 1996 is a little late to be trying to even put narrative protocols in place?  Shipping’s been around for a lot longer with ballast water, so I tend to think that the damage has been done.  I’m sure there’s some 20-legged millipede that speaks seven languages that hasn’t been introduced yet, but for the most part, I mean, green crabs have been here for long enough that your husband knew about them like as common knowledge, not as someone in the industry.

CLARICE:  Yeah.  I will say I wish I could find a more updated – I couldn’t find any updated research talking about how they’ve adjusted and become intertwined in that local ecosystem because by now even though originally when they came and started to become an invasive problem animals weren’t really sure yet if they could eat them and what that was like, but now seagulls are taking care of them.


CLARICE:  So how big of a concern are they today.  The most recent piece I could find was the University of New Hampshire is doing some research as to potential uses to help take down some of that population.  And part of it was they were looking at a – oh, goodness.  How did they say it – a softshell crab market similar to the blue crab so almost like making it a delicacy meal.  They’re really tiny.

MARISA:  I mean, how big are we talking here?

[0:14:39] CLARICE:  I mean, let’s put it this way.  Between your pointer finger and your thumb you can gauge the size, so they’re quite small.

MARISA:  Like inches?


MARISA:  A couple inches?

CLARICE:  They’re pretty tiny.

MARISA:  Okay.

CLARICE:  I think the biggest that I had seen was maybe if you took a computer mouse sideways.

MARISA:  Yeah.  Okay.  So how much meat are you getting out of those things?

CLARICE:  Not a lot.  They were also looking at doing community efforts to start using the crab as baits for other fishing which then leads to that question again, the seagulls now know that they’re a source of food.  Does that mean that they’re no longer an issue where other fish know to eat them?  This is a weird story.

MARISA:  Has anyone thought to go out into the ocean with a megaphone to explain to the sea life that the crabs are edible and we could use their help?

CLARICE:  Oh, I feel like the battery in the megaphone – maybe just a sign like a whiteboard.

MARISA:  A sign.


MARISA:  Yeah.

CLARICE:  So, yeah.  It was a weird kind of topic for the day.

MARISA:  I don’t know.  I don’t think it’s weird.  You know, we talk about international treaties and federal statutes.  I mean, this is how – this type of scenario is how and why federal programs and statutes are created, so I’m into it.

CLARICE:  Yeah.  My big takeaway at the end was that the only preservation of local ecosystems was self-reporting and the fact that it could be international water from anywhere introducing those new things when you’ve regulated as far down as to the fruit and vegetables coming in and the firewood between state lines and, you know, what that looks like.  So this just feels like a huge piece that we’ve overlooked and that we’re kind of allowing to continue.

MARISA:  I wonder if in the United States, anyway, there’s an inspection procedure – I don’t know who would carry out the inspection, maybe the Coast Guard – where kind of like with a recreational vessel the Coast Guard can board you with no probable cause and run through a safety checklist to make sure that everything on your boat is squared away.  I wonder if they are doing that with international vessels in terms of checking the ballast water infrastructure and ensuring that there’s some kind of safety valve that holds the  ballast water in until they can certify that it’s been treated and then they can discharge it.  And when they’re discharging it, does it have to be – no.  That doesn’t make sense.  They’d have to discharge it at the time that they were either unloading or onloading cargo because that’s what’s going to change the depth of the vessel.

[0:17:49] CLARICE:  Yeah.  They wouldn’t be able to go out those three nautical miles.

MARISA:  Yeah.

CLARICE:  It wouldn’t be safe.  It would have to be right at the dock.

MARISA:  So the water is getting discharged at the dock –


MARISA:  — or whatever the point of removal of the cargo.


MARISA:  Yeah.

CLARICE:  Something to think about, folks.

MARISA:  Hey, and happy 50th podcast episode.


MARISA:  Yeah.

CLARICE:  Happy 50th.

MARISA:  Yeah.

CLARICE:  We are so close to a full year.

MARISA:  Fantastic.  At the halfway point Ballast Water and who knows what other exciting topics, infinity and beyond.

CLARICE:  Ballast water and beyond, man.  Oh, look out.  That’s the merch we’re going to make.  I’ve decided.  So on that note, guys, if you have any weird, interesting, curious topics you’d want us to discuss – if you have something more practical, we can talk about that, too – you can reach out to us at Help@DesautelESQ.com.  You can hit us up on all of our socials.  We’ve also recently received some comments to our YouTube channel, so hit us up on that, too, if you like watching your podcasts.  And on that note, happy end of summer if you’re listening to this as it comes out.  We’re getting close to the end.

MARISA:  Thanks, Clarice.

CLARICE:  Have a good one, guys.

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