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Newsweek International EditionNewsweek  
Invasion of the Critters
Seemingly harmless marine organisms are wreaking havoc on the world's coastal water ways, rivers and inland lakes
By Mac Margolis
Newsweek International

Aug. 23 issue - Cleanup crews are used to thankless tasks. But when maintenance men at the So Paulo Electrical Co. (CESP) descended to the bowels of the huge Sergio Motta hydro- electric plant on the Parana River earlier this year, they couldn't believe what they saw. Or smelled. Like some nightmare still life, rotting shellfish were everywhere. And that was the good news. Limnoperna fortunei—better known as the golden mussel—is a tiny monster. Left untended, the fast-multiplying mussels would quickly clog the cooling tubes, causing the turbines to overheat and, conceivably, the plant to shut down. The Sergio Motta plant is one of the crown jewels of the regional power grid, which supplies electricity to six of 10 So Paulo residents. The only way to fight back is to drain the turbines and scrape off the mussels with water jets and pickaxes. "We hauled out trucks of the stuff," says engineering chief Luis Tadeu de Freitas. "The stink was unbearable."

Odor is the least of their problems. The golden mussel, originally from Asia, is a bioinvader. When it arrived in Brazil in the late 1990s no one gave the trifling bivalve organism much thought; it's a fraction of the size of a clam, and can't even swim. But Limnoperna fortunei is persistent. Sucked up into the ballast tanks of cargo ships, the golden mussel flourishes over transoceanic voyages, to be spit out in ports half a world away. From there, the trip inland is a cakewalk. Clinging like barnacles to the plumbing of ships, the mussels have hitchhiked their way deep into Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. These organisms spread so quickly they can smother the aquatic food chain in lakes, rivers and wetlands; starve fisheries, and clog water and sewage-treatment plants. If it is not stopped, ecologists warn, this aquatic Anschluss could roll over the Pantanal, Brazil's teeming wetlands preserve, and eventually disrupt the delicate mosaic of plants, birds and fish in the Amazon Basin itself.

Wind, weather and ocean currents have long helped whisk organisms from one place on the planet to the next. In recent years, though, global commerce and travel have compounded the problem, nowhere more dramatically than on the high seas. Ocean cargo has increased tenfold in the past 50 years, according to the world's shipping records, and 90 percent of the world's goods are now ferried on the oceans.

The volume of shipments isn't the problem so much as a change in ballast. To keep an even keel, oceangoing vessels used to fill their holds with rocks, sand or steel. In recent years, though, ships have switched to seawater. They'll drink up ballast in one port to spit it out in the next. That makes each boat a biological Trojan horse, with up to 7,000 invasive species hidden away in 11 billion tonnes of ballast water on any given day. Every nine weeks, a new marine bioinvader is set loose. The International Maritime Organization (IMO), which watches over the oceans, calls shipborne invaders "one of the most serious threats to the health of the world oceans."

The global exchange of plant and animal species is a two-edged sword. It can replenish the world food supply (the Andean potato) or devastate a habitat (the Indian mongoose, which killed off 12 bird species in Hawaii and the West Indies). No one can predict what will happen when any single creature pitches up on the far side of the earth. If an exotic organism survives its debut in a new habitat, though, it is there to stay. "Once they've escaped, you've had it," says Charles Griffiths, a zoologist at the University of Cape Town. Just one intrepid species, the Baltic zebra mussel, which turned up in the U.S. Great Lakes in the 1990s and spread all the way to the Mississippi Delta, has caused $3.1 billion in damage to the fishing and tourist industries. The comb jelly, a gelatinous creature from the East Coast of the Americas, found its way to the Black Sea in the 1980s, devouring zooplankton that fed countless fish species, pushing the local fishing economy into collapse. The creature has since been transported to the Caspian Sea, where it menaces sturgeon and world caviar supplies. "Exotic pests and organisms are responsible for 40 percent of extinctions of plants and animals on the planet," says Cornell University biologist David Pimentel, who has studied the impact of exotic predators on food supply. "Invading species are one of the most serious problems the world environment faces today."

Controlling marine bioinvaders is fiendishly difficult. Most critters breeze by even the stiffest border controls. A study by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, in early 2002, showed that 13,000 plant diseases are detected every year at U.S. ports—even though only 2 percent of incoming cargo and baggage is screened. The problem is worse in the big seafaring nations of the developing world. Brazil boasts 8,000 kilometers of coastline, while India has 12 giant cargo ports, with 5,000 ships a year calling on Mumbai alone. Both countries have set up high-level government ballast-water task forces—Brazil last April launched a nationwide citizen's campaign to stop the golden mussel—not least because they are in the international spotlight. Brazilians have been able to keep their lights on by dousing the waters at hydroelectric plants with chemicals like chlorine, which prevent the mussel from adhering to the tubes, and then scraping the turbines clean. But this is costly, time-consuming work, and bad for water quality.

Although most nations agree on the danger, there's no consensus on how to stop it. Having ships swap ballast waters on the high seas, where coastal species cannot survive, would mean costly delays and added risk. Brazil's oil company, Petrobras, has concocted a promising system to allow ships to gradually empty and refill their ballast tanks along the entire voyage, although shippers are still taking stock. And maritime officials worldwide are tinkering with everything from ultraviolet rays to ozone to treat ballast water, but most of these experiments have yet to leave dry land.

Technology alone will not vanquish the bioinvaders. Any lasting solution will require cooperation among seafaring nations. An international convention to control ballast water was drafted in February, but it will not become law unless at least 30 nations sign on. With the health of the world's waterways at risk, they have little choice. Besides, the alternative stinks.

With Tom Masland, Sudip Mazumdar And Liat Radcliffe

© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.

Newsweek: International Editions Section Front




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