Globalization has been profoundly associated with massive sea freight shipments. Primary commodities flow from states with rich resource endowments to others with processing facilities. Labour intensive goods are shipped from where labour is cheap to where the goods are demanded. In the process of all this activity, a lot of oceanic species have been able to move into waters they would never otherwise have reached. This unintentional human-induced migration has occurred for two major reasons: the construction of canals and the transport of ballast water. This brief discussion will focus on the latter.
Each year, ships carry 3 – 5 billion tonnes of ballast water internationally. The water is taken on in port, once a ship has been loaded. This is necessary to make the ship balanced and stable at sea. The water taken on can easily include hundreds of marine species of which many of which are capable of surviving the journey. If they get expelled in a suitable environment, these creatures can alter ecosystems and crowd out local species. Sea urchins that have arrived in this way have been extinguishing kelp beds off the west coast of North America, destroying sea otter habitat in the process. Zebra mussels are another infamous example of a problematic invasive species.
Efforts to prevent the transmission of species through ballast water take a number of forms:
- Ejecting the water taken on in port in the open ocean: most of the species expelled should die, and the new waters taken on should be relatively free of living things
- Poisoning the creatures in the ballast water: this can be done with degradable biocides like peracetic acid and hydrogen peroxide
- Transferring ballast water to a treatment facility at the arrival port
- De-oxygenating the water in ballast tanks: this kills most species, if the deoxygenated conditions are maintained for long enough
None of these approaches is completely effective. Each retains some possibility of unintentionally introducing invasive species. Several also have other environmentally relevant effects.
That said, simply making an active effort to prevent species transmission between ecosystems marks a big change in human thinking. Not long ago, species were often introduced willy-nilly into entirely new environments: for aesthetic, practical, or whimsical reasons. Infamous cases include those of Eugene Schieffelin – the man who introduced starlings to North America because he wanted to continent to contain all the birds mentioned in the works of Shakespeare – and Thomas Austin – the British landowner who introduced rabbits to Australia because he missed hunting them. Wikipedia has a comprehensive list of such introduced species.