Guest Blogger: Implications of Business Practices in the Shipping Industry on Environmental Sustainability

My brother-in-law, Dr. Giorgos Kokkoris, is a professor at the University of the Aegean, on the island of Lesbos, Greece. Since his specialty is Mathematical Biology and Effects of Invader Species on Ecosystems, we frequently discuss issues related to invader species.

An invader species is one that does not normally belong in a habitat, but has been introduced there, either intentionally or unintentionally. The invader may have beneficial or detrimental impacts to that ecological community and can be either plant or animal.

One such example is kudzu. Kudzu was a plant native to Japan that was brought to the United States to control erosion; it ended up becoming a nuisance plant because it grew too well in the South. Many introductions of invader species are not intentional but still can cause great harm to the environment.

The invader species usually do not have predators and will eventually crowd out the native species, creating a loss of biological diversity in the habitat.

This is a global problem and can happen to any habitat in the world. Frequently when large ocean-going vessels leave a port with their bilge tank full of water from their port,  and travel to an area of warmer water and dump their bilge tank water, they introduce invader species that can wreak havoc on the new ecosystem.

The Mediterranean is already having problems from overfishing. Dr. Kokkoris has proposed that certain areas near the coastlines be protected from commercial fishing so the fish population can recover. While this plan will help the fish population recover in a few years, what can we do about the invader species carried in ship bilge water?

Like kudzu, the fish that live in colder areas will thrive in the warmer Mediterranean waters and will either eat or displace the natural fish in the area. The situation presents a double whammy to the fisherman. He will not be able to catch any fish due to overfishing, and also will not have native fish due to invader species taking over their habitat. This is a significant impact on their livelihood.

So what can be done? Some countries are looking at regulations on bilge water, like sterilization of the bilge water before discharge, and other requirements. Sterilization by chlorine could also kill the local biota as it is discharged from the ship. Alternatives to chemical sterilization should be considered and become standard in the shipping industry.

How do such regulations get enforced? In Greece there are also regulations that the small sailboats not dump their wastewater into the sea near swimming areas, but some boaters do it anyway. People report it to the Port Police but there is not much they can do.

They say they have to rely on the boat operators to do the right thing. Many a time on my vacation I had to get out of the water until the waste dissipated. Who is going to police these large ships to see if they are doing the right thing?

Meanwhile, the standard practices of the shipping industry are creating a global issue and damaging the long-term environmental sustainability of the ocean ecosystem. This is not a short-term issue, like wastewater dumping, but can have long-term damage to the ecosystems. Don’t forget to factor in the other manmade pollution that is entering the ports from the land,  and its additive detrimental effects to the ecosystem.

The U.S. and Canadian governments are trying to take action by requiring open ocean ballast water exchange (emptying the bilge tanks at sea), around 200 nautical miles off the coast, but what will this exchange do to the ecosystems in small areas of the open ocean? An inspection program and enforcement are also necessary to assure compliance with the requirements. Such measures have to be rigorous to maintain compliance.

As students, what can you do? You can be familiar with the global environmental issues and factor environmental sustainability into all your business decisions.

Please share your comments on this topic.

Elizabeth Phillips has over 30 years of Environmental Management experience. She has worked in private industry as a consultant and government contractor, Tennessee State Government as a regulator and the Department of Energy as a program and project manager. She has a B.S. in Geology from Vanderbilt University and she completed her M.S. in Environmental Engineering. She has participated in the Project Management Certification program and her current responsibilities include management of remediation projects at the Y-12 National Security Complex, and Program Manager for the Environmental Technology Development Program.

Elizabeth’s hobbies include volunteer work in science education, youth soccer, and community service programs. She has received the President’s Volunteer Service Award and the Secretary of Energy Community Service Award. She is the past President of the Oak Ridge Chapter of Women in Nuclear, Vice President for Programs of Federally Employed Women, Federal Women’s Program Manager, Science Club Coordinator for Bearden Elementary School, YWCA Board, AYSO Board, and currently serves as Secretary of the FBI Knoxville Citizen’s Academy Alumni Association. She is married and is a soccer mom to two children.