“ Protecting the world's greatest freshwater resource and the communities that depend upon it ”

Stopping the spread of aquatic invasive species

Aquatic invasive species (also known as aquatic nuisance species) are one of the biggest threats facing the Great Lakes and their fisheries and wildlife.  Invasive species like the zebra mussel are causing unacceptable environmental and economic damage.  New invasive diseases, such as Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia (VHS) threaten to devastate Great Lakes fisheries.  Aquatic invasive species in the Great Lakes can often be traced to ships’ ballast water discharges.  The problem is both historic and ongoing, as the Great Lakes are now infested with over 180 aquatic invasive species and a new invasive species comes into the Great Lakes, on average, about once every six months.  The costs of aquatic invasive species to the Great Lakes region are staggering, as the region is spending tens of millions of dollars to combat the billions of dollars in damage they cause.

AIS photoThe federal government has recognized the problem but failed to solve it.  Federal law gives the U.S. Coast Guard regulatory authority to address ballast water discharges, but exemptions in the regulatory program have undermined its success.  More recently, a federal court has ruled that ballast water discharges are subject to the Clean Water Act, but the US EPA has merely responded with an inadequate general permit for the shipping industry.

The Great Lakes Environmental Law Center is working with state leaders and conservation groups to stop the spread of invasive species in the Great Lakes.  Michigan passed a law that took effect in January 2007 requiring vessels that discharge ballast water to use specified technologies to prevent the introduction of invasive species into the Great Lakes.  Several shipping companies, ports, and industry groups sued the state, alleging that the Michigan law unconstitutionally interferes with interstate commerce and is preempted by federal law. A coalition of environmental and conservation organizations intervened on behalf of the state.

In August 2007, Judge John Feikens of the U.S. District Court in Detroit rejected the shippers’ arguments and dismissed the suit in Fednav v. Chester.  The shippers appealed, and the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center filed a brief on behalf of the state lawmakers to support the legal authority of Michigan and other states to protect the Great Lakes from ballast water pollution.  The state lawmakers represented by the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center are Michigan State Senator Patricia L. Birkholz (R), Minnesota State Senator Ann H. Rest (DFL), Illinois State Representative Karen May (D), Wisconsin State Senator Robert L. Cowles (R), and Wisconsin State Representative Jon Richards (D).  In November 2008, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld Michigan's ballast water statute and rejected the shippers' federal preemption and Constitutional challenges.

Additional resources on aquatic invasive species:

The Great Lakes Environmental Law Center has also filed a petition in federal court challenging the U.S. EPA’s new rule exempting water transfers from Clean Water Act regulation, which would open the door to more invasive species in our waterbodies.  See the transbasin water diversions project page for more details.