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Agencies getting tough with ship ballast dumping

After decades of delay, government officials are beginning to crack down on cargo ships that allow foreign invasive species to hitchhike to U.S. waters, where they have turned ecosystems upside down and caused billions of dollars in economic losses.

Organisms as large as adult fish and as small as bacteria lurk in ship ballast tanks, which hold millions of gallons of water and sediments that keep vessels upright in rough seas. When the soupy mixtures are dumped in harbors as freight is taken on, the stowaways often find hospitable surroundings and no natural predators. They spread rapidly, starving out native species and spreading diseases in aquatic life.

Since arriving in the Great Lakes in the mid-1980s, the zebra mussel and its cousin the quagga mussel have clogged municipal and power plant water intake pipes. They're blamed for a Lake Huron salmon collapse and botulism that has killed thousands of shore birds. In San Francisco Bay, biologists say the Asian clam likely caused a decline of striped bass and other competitors for plankton.

Japanese shore crabs are threatening native clams and mussels from Maine to Chesapeake Bay, which is infested with 150-plus exotic species. Another invader, the spotted jellyfish, became so abundant in the Gulf of Mexico a decade ago they ripped apart fishing nets and caused a temporary halt to commercial shrimping.

"Larvae of almost every major group of invertebrates can be found in ballast water," said Tom Shirley, specialist with Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. "Protozoa and bacteria thrive there, too."

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