The dumping of untreated ballast water from oceangoing ships poses such a risk of alien species altering the Chesapeake and other ecosystems that stepped-up federal action is warranted, according to a new Bay Program report.

The report, expected to be forwarded to Congress soon, calls for the federal government to regulate the handling of ballast water and to significantly step up monitoring programs that look for foreign fish, worms, algae and other potential coastal water invaders.

At least 150 foreign species already inhabit the Bay. While many have little obvious impact, others — like the recently arrived rapa whelk which eats shellfish — may pose major threats to native inhabitants.

In places such as the Black Sea and San Francisco Bay, exotic species have irreversibly altered ecosystems and caused the near extinction of some species. Some worry that if the wrong species were to turn up in the Bay, restoration efforts would be severely set back. Ballast water is considered the primary route through which exotic species enter the Chesapeake.

“We’re looking at bringing the Bay back, and we’re looking at the water quality and nutrients and a lot of factors, but we’ve only recently begun paying attention to what may be dumped into this Bay on a daily basis as a result of ballast water exchange and what the impacts are,” said Judith Freeman, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Chesapeake Bay Office and co-chair of the Bay Program’s Ballast Water Task Force that wrote the report.

“There is a tremendous amount of ballast water that is dumped into the Bay on an annual basis,” she said.

The task force report calls for updating the National Invasive Species Act of 1996 to improve its effectiveness in stemming the risk of harmful alien invasions via ballast water.

After a ship unloads its cargo, it routinely sucks huge amounts of water into its hold as ballast to steady the vessel for its return voyage, usually releasing the water when it reaches its destination. More than 3 billion gallons of ballast water are released into the Bay each year, as much or more than any bay in the nation.

Federal law encourages vessels to exchange ballast water at sea before entering ports because organisms in high-salinity ocean water are less likely to survive when released into less salty coastal water. The law requires that ships report how they handled ballast water when they arrive in port.

But the Bay Program report indicates that only 22 percent of vessels actually made such a report when they arrived in the Chesapeake, and no penalty exists for failing to do so.

The existing program also doesn’t require ships moving from port-to-port along the coast to exchange ballast water, or to provide ballast water information when arriving in the next port. “It is evident that such coastwise traffic can contribute strongly to the overall transfer of non-native species among ports and poses a significant risk of accelerating the rate of invasions,” the report said.

The report recommends that all arriving vessels be required to make a ballast water report, even if they are not coming from a foreign port. Further, it says ballast water exchange should be required for all vessels arriving from foreign ports unless if it would affect safety. Penalties should be imposed for failure to comply with the requirements.

Still, ballast water exchange is considered only a stopgap measure, because a ship cannot safely exchange all of its ballast in open water, and some ships are not designed to safely do so at all. So the report says emphasis needs to be placed on developing new treatment technologies that reduce the risk of releasing foreign species.

Those technologies should be phased in for ships as they become available, the report said, and those treatments should also apply to ships moving along the coast as well. In addition, the report said, testing methods need to be developed to verify that ballast water treatment actually takes place on a ship.

The report also emphasizes the need to monitor coastal waters for foreign species to see whether management actions affect the rate of new invasions, as well as providing an early warning system if problem species show up. Right now, there is no standardized monitoring system for foreign species in coastal waters.

It further recommends that rapid response plans be developed to deal with invasions when they are discovered, so problem species might be eradicated before becoming established.

Although both Maryland and Virginia recently passed laws that require ships to report their handling of ballast water, the laws differ in their details. The report said the nation, as a whole, would benefit from stronger, more coordinated efforts to manage ballast water. “The risks and concerns associated with ship-mediated invasions are fundamentally the same along all shores,” it said.

Further, once a species becomes established at one port, it can more easily be spread to other ports along the coast. Also, the report said, the shipping industry prefers a unified national approach rather than a series of differing state laws.

For a copy of the Ballast Waster Task Force’s report, contact the Bay Program office at 800-YOUR-BAY.