If you’ve driven across the bridge across the Nanticoke River on the Eastern Shore at Sharptown, you might’ve noticed a strange looking vessel moored to shore. One hundred and fifty feet long and fifty feet wide, it’s a one-of-a-kind barge outfitted with two, large white holding tanks and a tangle of red and blue pipes. It is actually a floating laboratory with a staff of about a dozen scientists responsible testing technologies that treat ballast water on ships to reduce the risks associated with the spread of aquatic invasive species.
The mobile test platform, from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Maritime Environmental Resource Center, is the only mobile lab of its kind in the world. Funded by the Maryland Port Administration and the U.S Maritime Administration, it evaluates the performance of ballast water treatment technologies before they are installed on ships to ensure they meet U.S. Coast Guard requirements.
With a home port in Baltimore, the barge is capable of testing at multiple locations in the Chesapeake Bay with diverse water salinities and plankton communities, including freshwater in the Nanticoke River.
“The maritime industry recognizes the threat ballast water poses to introducing invasive species into ports and wants to employ the best technologies,” said Dr. Mario Tamburri, director of the Maritime Environmental Resource Center. “The uniqueness of this test facility is that it can be moved from port to port within the Chesapeake Bay to evaluate the technologies in varying environmental conditions, such as salinity, temperature and biological community.”
Ballast water carries non-native species from around the world can pose economic, ecological and public health risks. U.S. Coast Guard regulations have been established to limit live organisms released in ship ballast water and reduce the risks associated with the spread of aquatic invasive species.
"We're the first team approved by the U.S. Coast Guard as having the skill and the rigor required to test ballast water treatment systems for certification," said Tamburri. “This is the first year we’re testing a ballast water treatment system in freshwater on the Eastern Shore.”
How does it work? The barge pulls in water from the river to fill its two tanks. One tank is the control tank (water that won’t be treated), and the other is treated with the specific brand of ballast water treatment technology that’s being evaluated to eliminate the invasive species. After 48 hours, the water from both tanks is sampled and analyzed.
If the technology works, after a careful count under the microscope, the number of naturally occurring critters in the water—zooplankton, phytoplankton and bacteria—should be in high natural concentrations in control water but extremely low (and below the U.S. Coast Gurad discharge standards) in the treated water.
The team has already completed five weeks of testing of the current treatment system in low salinity waters of Baltimore, will now spend five to six weeks testing the technology in Sharptown, and then head to Norfolk for a similar set of tests the high salinity waters. The data from these rigorous tests under multiple conditions will be sent to the U.S. Coast Guard so the treatment system can be certified for use on ships to stop invasive species from spreading to our local waterways and around the world.