Why Container Ships Could Be Just as Dangerous as Oil Tankers

More freight vessels crossing oceans mean more chances for invasive tagalongs to ruin the environment.

(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Mar 17, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Editor, reporter, and radio producer Zachary Slobig has covered coastal issues for Outside, NPR, Los Angeles Times, and many others.

We’re weaving a web of transoceanic transit that is perpetually growing: Global shipping is booming, new canals are being constructed, existing ones are widening, and even more subsea Internet cables are in the works.

It’s a global system based on the transportation of goods, but it’s one that ecologists warn is potentially calamitous to biosecurity.

How? Thanks to increasing ship traffic, marine hitchhikers are finding more options to stow away and wreak havoc on new, susceptible environments.

“I see a direction where we will continue to increase biosecurity—it just takes one species to do billions of dollars in damage,” said James Carlton, a professor of marine sciences at Williams College. “It seems like a busy and itchy world out there, but we can prevent things from happening. We do it with public safety, air safety, infectious diseases, and we can certainly do it with biological invasions.”

Right now, aquatic invasive species are costing the U.S. economy $138 billion a year. Some scientists and researchers say it’s high time that we move away from a Whac-A-Mole management approach and pinpoint the most problematic vectors at their sources—us. In an age where human impact on biodiversity is both dramatic and growing, it is still often overlooked.

Countries such as Australia and New Zealand now have government departments focused solely on biosecurity. In the U.S., it’s a multiagency effort where gaps can have dire economic and ecological consequences.

Our oyster industry, for instance, could be wiped out by a single invasion, said Carlton. “We don’t want to act like a fire department,” he noted. “There’s a strong rationale to look at vector management and prevention.”

Some of those vectors, or routes of biological invasion, are as old as ancient transoceanic travel: Organisms from foreign ports of call make their way to new homes on the underbelly of ships or in ballast water. The shipping industry has long been aware of this issue, even if it’s for a different reason—a hull crusted with stowaways exponentially increases fuel costs and therefore the bottom line.

Still, that hasn’t stopped invaders like the Russian-borne zebra and quagga mussels from making the crossing—both are currently clogging water pipes and power-plant lines along the Great Lakes and the Colorado River.

Today, the massive container ships needed to meet the growing demand for goods have even larger nooks and crannies where invasives can thrive without shipping companies seeing an impact on their bottom line. In the 1990s, the largest cargo ships carried 5,000 containers. Ships now carry nearly four times that amount.

Ian Davidson and his team at the Smithsonian Marine Invasions Research Lab have dived under 80 cargo vessels, researching the threats of “ship biofouling,” and he’s convinced that stricter standards are imperative.

“In the coming years, hull biofouling will be a big issue,” Davidson said. “New Zealand was the first country to release a set of ship standards, which in 2018 will be mandatory.”

He suspects that other nations will have to follow suit. “Rearranging your biodiversity doesn’t come without costs,” he said. “You can put a dollar amount on that, and the studies are coming in all time.”

Carlton would like to see the federal government establish an agency as systematic and effective as the Animal and Plant Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture but focused on the marine environment.

“It’s a noisy world, and the vectors are increasing logarithmically,” he pointed out. “All it takes is one species, and we don’t want a disaster on the order of the Exxon Valdez or the BP spill to precipitate legislation.”