Examining problem species in the Columbia

In a joint effort with the ports of Portland and Astoria, and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who secured $500,000 in federal money for the program, Portland State University’s Center for Lakes and Reservoirs (CLR) has begun work on the Columbia River Aquatic Nuisance Species Initiative in an effort to develop methods of maintaining environmental security for the Columbia River through enforcement of ballast water regulations.

“We get a lot of ships into the Columbia because it’s a bulk port,” said associate professor of environmental sciences Mark Sytsma. “They have a lot of ballast water on board. When they pump off the water they’re also pumping off the organisms, and some of them can be damaging.”

As cargo vessels travel from port to port picking up various cargo, they must take in ballast water or release it to maintain their stability. Each ship has 20 to 30 ballast tanks that are emptied or filled at various ports, creating a sort of biological stew filled with organisms from each stop around the world.

When a ship comes to port in the Columbia, it tends to be empty of cargo and full of ballast water. As it takes on cargo, it lets off ballast, and that’s when foreign creatures can be released.

The concern is that these foreign creatures will be introduced to the Columbia River ecosystem and create an unbalance or threaten the habitat of a native species such as salmon.

Initially, the threat of zebra shrimp brought the focus to the Columbia. Zebra shrimp were introduced to the Great Lakes through ballast water releases and have caused no end of troubles in the region.

CLR director Sytsma, who is heading the three-year project, doesn’t think the likelihood of zebra shrimp being introduced to the Columbia through ballast water exchanges is that great, but he does see a number of other potentially problem species present in the ecosystem.

Zooplankton, a tiny organism at the bottom of the food chain, is an example.

“The dominant species in the Columbia River is not a native species,” Sytsma said. “No one really knows the long-term effects.”

While zooplankton are small, their numbers can easily grow beyond manageable levels, upsetting food supplies for other organisms and causing a chain reaction that could run all the way up the food chain to affect salmon.

Beyond the constant but less-tangible concern of ecosystem balance is the threat of organisms that can grow at epidemic proportions, clogging the waterways with excess biomass.

“The Columbia River is really an important resource for the whole West Coast, it generates power for the whole West Coast,” Sytsma said.

“Zebra mussels attach to surfaces. If we got zebra mussels in the Columbia, it would damage dams and cause costs to go up,” he continued.

Likewise, creatures such as the New Zealand mud snail could clog dams and waterways, requiring expensive cleanup endeavors.

“The New Zealand mud snail has caused a lot of problems in trout streams in Montana and Idaho,” Sytsma said.

The snails reproduce exponentially, filling up streams with 750,000 snails per square meter.

“It’s massive, just a carpet of these snails. It’s almost like a cancer,” Sytsma said.

“(The snails) are in the lower Columbia River. We knew they were in the mouth of the Columbia River up by Astoria,” Sytsma said.

CLR is examining to what extent the snail’s presence is felt.

According to Sytsma, there isn’t much that can be done to combat animal species once they’ve been introduced.

“One of the purposes to a lot of this work is to prevent these introductions,” he said.

As it stands, it’s very difficult to enforce federal regulations regarding the ballasting of water, and that’s part of what the Columbia species initiative will address.

“We’ll have a technician go to Korea and sample the ballast water tanks as they cross the ocean and testing the salinity of ocean water,” Sytsma said.

While studying typical ballasting procedure, the species initiative will also be able to study the properties of the ecosystem created by the mixing of waters within the ballast tanks of ships.