Protecting the Great Lakes & St. Lawrence Seaway

WASHINGTON D.C. (MAY 10, 2018) – The Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Seaway system is the longest deep-draft waterway in the world, and this year marks its 60th shipping season. This marine highway is home to some of North America’s most important ports that promote trade and commerce for the Great Lakes region and America’s heartland.

Ships move approximately 160 million tons of cargo on the System each year, carrying iron ore and limestone for the steel industry, coal for power generation, grain for farming operations, and cement for construction, among many other materials crucial to building up the Great Lakes economy. Great Lakes shipping supports 227,000 jobs in the United States and Canada and annually sustains $34 billion in business revenues.

“Commercial shipping is critical to the economic prosperity of the Great Lakes region,” said Steve Fisher, Executive Director of the American Great Lakes Ports Association. “Study after study has demonstrated that waterborne transportation is the most cost-effective, energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly mode of transportation.”

Key to being an environmentally-friendly mode of transportation includes taking action to reduce the risk of introducing invasive species via ships’ ballast water.

Understanding Ballast Water & Invasive Species

Ballast water is used to stabilize vessels at sea. Water is pumped into ships in order to maintain safe operating conditions throughout a voyage and is pumped out when not required.

This practice reduces stress on the hull, provides stability, improves propulsion and maneuverability and compensates for weight changes when cargo is loaded and unloaded.

While ballast water is essential for the safety of the crew and ship and for efficient shipping operations, it may include non-native marine species. These unwanted hitchhikers can pose serious consequences for the Great Lakes if moved from one ecosystem to another. Some of these species can become “invasive,” a term used to indicate a species that is causing ecological, economic and health problems. However, by following rigorous, well-defined management protocols, and installing and using effective ballast water treatment systems on ocean-going vessels, these ecological threats can be significantly minimized and possibly eliminated.

Ships inadvertently spread invasive aquatic species such as zebra mussels and round gobies in their ballast water discharges, and it was only in the 1980s that ballast water was identified as a major source of non-native aquatic species being introduced to our Great Lakes. As a result, federal regulations were introduced in the United States and Canada beginning in the 1990s, and in 2006 the two governments required ocean-going vessels entering the Great Lakes region undergo the most rigorous ballast management and inspection procedures in the world.

“For all who love the Great Lakes, it is important to understand that progress is being made on the ballast water problem,” said Fisher.

Proactively Protecting the Environment

Both industry and government are taking action to create effective solutions to the ballast water issue.

  • Salt Water Flushing of Ballast Tanks: All vessels entering the Great Lakes from abroad are required to take part in a Joint Inspection Program where they must exchange any ballast water they are carrying while still at sea or flush any empty tanks with ocean water. Even “empty” tanks can harbor some organisms in the residual water or sediment at the bottom of the tanks. This practice helps to physically remove organisms from ballast tanks. Furthermore, the salinity of the salt water is very effective at killing any remaining freshwater organisms that might still be left after flushing.

To ensure compliance, the U.S. and Canadian governments stop, inspect and test every ballast tank of every ocean-going ship that enters the St. Lawrence Seaway in Montreal, which is the gateway to the Great Lakes. “Since these protections were put in place in 2006, no new non-indigenous species in the Great Lakes have been attributed to ballast water,” said Dale Bergeron, a Maritime Extension Educator at the Minnesota Sea Grant. No other managed aquatic ecosystem in the world has matched this accomplishment.

GLSP Ballast Water


  • Ballast Water Treatment: Current U.S. federal law requires that ocean-going ships must install ballast water treatment systems to filter and clean ballast water prior to discharge. This requirement began in January 2016, with a five-year implementation window through 2021. A number of vessels already feature this equipment. The Canadian government requires all ocean-going vessels to have this equipment by 2022. Furthermore, all vessels originating from foreign ports will be required to continue the best practice of salt water flushing of ballast water tanks prior to entering the St. Lawrence Seaway.
  • The Great Ships Initiative: Established in 2006, the Great Ships Initiative (GSI) was established to provide a Great Lakes-based test and evaluation center to help speed the development of ballast water treatment technology. The project was a collaboration between Great Lakes ports, vessel operators, the Northeast-Midwest Institute and the University of Wisconsin. In 2017, the University of Wisconsin established a follow-on initiative called the Great Waters Research Collaborative to pursue the same goals.
  • The Great Lakes-Seaway Ballast Water Collaborative: This initiative was launched in 2009, and is comprised of representatives from industry, government and academia to share relevant information pertaining to ways to further reduce the risk of introduction and the spread of aquatic invasive species via ships’ ballast water. It is a science-based approach that aims to understand the entirety of the problem, create a practical and realistic solution and foster better communication and collaboration among the key stakeholders committed to reducing the risk of introduction and spread of aquatic non-indigenous species.
  • Vessel Best Management Practices:S. and Canadian domestic vessels, known as “Lakers,” that do not leave the Great Lakes Seaway System, do not play a role in introducing non-native species. To minimize the movement of species within the Lakes, the Lake Carriers’ Association and the Chamber of Marine Commerce (formerly the Canadian Shipowners Association) agreed to a set of rigorous best management practices. These practices require shipowners to regularly inspect ballast tanks, avoid ballast uptake in specific areas where certain invasive species are present, minimize ballast operations in near-shore areas, and to cooperate with research and testing new ballast water treatment systems.

The Great Lakes maritime industry supports initiatives that help reduce the threat of invasive species in our Great Lakes, while simultaneously stimulating trade and enhancing the Great Lakes economy.

About the Great Lakes Seaway Partnership: The Great Lakes Seaway Partnership is a coalition of leading US and Canadian maritime organizations working to enhance public understanding of the benefits of commercial shipping in the Great Lakes Seaway region of North America. The organization manages an education-focused communications program, and works closely with media, policy makers, community groups, allied industries, environmental stakeholders and the general public to highlight the positive attributes of marine transportation.

The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System is a marine highway that extends 2,300 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. Approximately 160 million tons of cargo travels over the System on an annual basis, supporting more than 227,000 jobs and $34 billion in economic activity.


For more information, please visit