For the uninitiated, the term ‘marine bioinvasions’ refers to invasive species that over time have been moved from one oceanic location to another, in turn causing detrimental effects on the environments they are introduced into.
These invasive species attach themselves to the outside of ships, in a process called ‘hull fouling' or arrive in the ballast tanks of large ships. If you’re not a seafarer and find yourself unfamiliar with ballast water, this is fresh or saltwater that is stored in the bottom of ships to give more stability when a ship is no longer carrying cargo or has a reduced load.
2023 National Library of Australia Fellow Dr Adam Sundberg, focused his recent research on the environmental history of bioinvasions through the study of ballast water – and his findings go deep.
Luke Hickey: Yuma. Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to the National Library of Australia. I'm Luke Hickey. I'm the Assistant Director General of the Engagement Branch. I'd like to begin by acknowledging Australia's First Nations Peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of the land. I'd like to give my respect to elders past and present and through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, particularly of those who were privileged to look after collections. Thank you for attending this event, both onsite and online.
Coming to you from Ngunnawal and Ngambri country here today. This afternoon's presentation, an Environmental History of Ballast Water Management in Australia is by Dr Adam Sundberg, a 2023 National Library of Australia fellow. Our distinguished Fellowships program supports researchers to make intensive use of the library's rich and varied collections through residencies of three months. NLA fellowships are made possible by generous philanthropic support and Dr Sundberg's Fellowship is generously supported by the Stokes family. Adam Sundberg is an associate professor of history and digital humanities at Creighton University in Omaha, USA. His research focuses on the environmental history of disasters and melds several interests, including the history of science and technology, environmental change and adaptive response to disasters.
This work also includes a significant section on marine species introductions, which is the subject of his fellowship here at the National Library. Ballast water is among the most significant drivers of species introductions and a striking example of the unintended environmental consequences of globalised trade. In this presentation, Dr Sundberg will explain how he has drawn on the National Libraries collection of ballast water studies, state and industry reports, newspapers and monographs largely unavailable outside of Australia to trace the origins of the crisis. And how Australia emerged as a global leader in ballast water science and management. Please join me in welcoming Dr Adam Sundberg to the stage.
Adam Sundberg: Thank you for the introduction, Luke. I'd also like to begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples who are the traditional custodians of the Canberra area and pay respect to the elders past and present of all of Australia's indigenous peoples. This region is undeniably stunning and it's – this experience has been really deeply meaningful to me, so I consider it a great privilege to be here as a visitor. I'd also like to thank the fantastic staff at the National Library, without which this experience would obviously not be possible.
Kelly and Sharyn deserve a special shout-out since they answered every one of my numerous questions, kept me on schedule, and also put me in touch with all the fantastic experts at the library. As I'm sure all the fellows here would readily attest, this library is a special place and it's made special by the staff. Finally, I'd like to thank the Stokes family whose generosity made my fellowship and so many others possible.
In late September of 1985, Gustaaf Hallegraeff, a specialist on marine algae and scientist working for Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, or CSIRO, dipped his plankton sampling bucket into the waters of the Derwent River in Tasmania. Hallegraeff had moved along with the entire marine division of CSIRO to Hobart earlier that year. Hobart in the 1980s was a sleepy port city and capital of its smallest state. It was also its least populous and had languished during the inflationary period of the 1970s. By the mid-1980s, Tasmania was still clawing its way out of recession.
The Commonwealth favoured moving CSIRO’s marine offices from near Sydney in part to this region for geographical reasons, but also because it would quote, “involve the transfer to Tasmania of 170 positions with significant effect on the employment opportunities for the Tasmanian economy.” As one of those 170 staffers, Hallegraeff may have felt ambivalent about this move, but this didn't stop him from taking advantage of this change of scene.
In his own telling, one of the first things he did was take his sampling bucket to the Derwent River and take some samples. The Derwent estuary region was then experiencing an algal bloom of a dinoflagellate, a specific type of microscopic algae that had never been observed before in Australia. More alarming still this species, gymnodinium catenatum was one of the relatively few species that produced toxins harmful to humans. Their toxins biomagnify in filter feeders such as shellfish, which when consumed by people can produce paralytic shellfish poisoning, a serious and sometimes fatal condition.
By cruel coincidence, the Derwent and nearby Huon estuary region also hosted the nascent but quickly expanding shellfish aquaculture industry. So, the risk was obvious. Quote, “I knew that this organism had killed children in Mexico.” He would later explain, referring to a deadly episode in 1979, so Hallegraeff promptly called public health authorities. The Department of Sea Fisheries quickly established a monitoring programme.
Between March and June of 1986, the state would temporarily close 16 affected farms. So far, I'm sure this story seems somewhat parochial and no doubt most of its key agents are unfamiliar. It's the story of a public health scare involving an obscure species and a medical condition that I’m sure most of you have never heard of. Confined to a few small estuaries at the southern tip of Tasmania. If you feel this way, don't worry. You're not alone.
Like most of the people I've talked with about this project, I couldn't spell dinoflagellate when I began this work. So, what drew me to this story? In a word, bio invasions or we might call them species introductions. And the species themselves, non-indigenous or exotic. If they're problematic, we might call them invasives or pests. There are many ways to describe these organisms, but what unites them is that humans are directly or indirectly involved in their movement and impacts.
I imagine we're now in more familiar terrain because Australian environmental history is replete with stories of intentional and unintentional introductions, and I'm reminded of this every evening when I see the rabbits munching on the turf. No doubt also introduced outside the National Library. Most introductions have been relatively benign, but some have proved ecologically and socially disastrous. Without question they can have important consequences. Introduced species are widely regarded to be significant global threat to biodiversity.
The economic costs of marine species introductions alone are enormous. By some estimates 345 billion dollars of annual costs predicted to increase exponentially in coming decades. Marine invasives at times even pose threats to human life and wellbeing, whether due to the introduction of cholera or something less familiar like algal biotoxins that accumulate in our seafood. What drew me to bio invasions is the capacity of these phenomena to reveal underlying patterns in our shifting relationship with the natural world.
I'm an environmental historian of what are often called natural disasters, and although we might immediately think of bush fires or floods or pandemics, bio invasions sometimes operate according to similar dynamics. All disasters emerge out of some combination of environmental change and social vulnerabilities that take shape over time. So, unpacking their causal origin occupies a privileged place in their historical study. Just as critically, people respond to crises in a variety of ways. Sometimes this response can be muted, but other times it can be remarkable or even transformative.
Historians study both dynamics, which is what I want to spend the rest of my time talking about today. My work at the National Library is part of a larger study of marine introductions from the early modern period to the 20th century. Called Globalising Exotics, it explores the origins and impacts of bio invasions that catalysed social, technological, and scientific change. An important part of that story took place in Australia between the early 1970s and 1990s. It was during this period that Australia became a global leader in understanding the drivers, evaluating the risk and developing management strategies to contain invasive species.
Much of this work focused on a relatively obscure vector of transfer, ballast water. If you're not familiar with ballast water, I'll explain it in due course. But this history is not solely about ballast water. It involves environmental variables like rainfall and the biology and life cycle of phytoplankton, as well as social economic changes in the timber, shipping and aquaculture industries. It involves the economic imperatives of the Commonwealth and industry, and also conflicts over-forest use in Tasmania. It includes environmentalists, government agencies, a small group of scientists, engineers, and bureaucrats representing everything from fisheries, to ports, to quarantine.
Any story as broad as this requires a correspondingly broad collection of material for research, and this is precisely what brought me to the National Library. Rather than diving deep into any single collection, my strategy has been to cast a wide net. I needed ballast water studies, environmental impact statements and manuscripts from environmentalist organisations. I needed trade journals and periodicals in industries from aquaculture to forest products. I also needed newspapers from across Australia. I supplemented this work with oral interviews.
This latter method is new to me, but the library's own wonderful oral history collection and expert staffers willing to lend advice has been an invaluable resource for me on this research journey. This wide-ranging comprehensive character of the National Library is what makes a project like this possible. The story I'll be telling today is driven by the following questions. Why did gymnodinium catenatum and a host of other species appear in Tasmania in the 1980s? How did Australian scientists become aware of the problem of ballast water introductions? What motivated policy response? And were those responses effective?
Although this story is not just about ballast water, it does hinge on this shipping technology. Ballast simply refers to material that weights down the bottom of a ship. It improves its trim and stability. Cargo can work as ballast, but if a ship is sailing without cargo, it must travel in ballast. When cargo is taken on, that weight is discarded. For most of history, ballast was solid. It could be debris, rocks, really any other type of material.
The shift to iron and steel ships and improvements in pumping technology at the end of the 19th century catalysed a shift to the use of water. By the 1950s, that transition was largely complete, especially in these new large vessels like bulk carriers, tankers, and eventually container ships. Today, these ships are massive, and their ballast tanks are immense, sometimes carrying up to a hundred thousand tonnes of water or more.
Roughly 12 billion tonnes of ballast water are now transhipped annually around the world. The connection between the shift to ballast water and the rise of marine bio invasions is direct and speaks to the importance of shipping as a driver of social and environmental change. The ubiquity of ballast water by the late 20th century mirrored our growing dependence on globalised trade. By the 1990s, shipping accounted for roughly 80% of world trade. Thickening webs of trade connected economies, and unintentionally connected marine ecologies.
When ships pump in ballast water at their point of origin, they suck in organisms as well, which they later dump in ports of call when loading cargo. Combined with the increasing size and speed of ships, these trends ensured a greater number and variety of biological stowaways. By the early 2000s, it was estimated that roughly 7,000 species were moving around the globe in ballast water at any given moment. Ballast water is not the only method of translocation of species. Some hull fouling organisms attach to the outside of the hull. Together biofouling and ballast water account for roughly 60 to 80% of all marine introductions. Ballast water is, in other words, a significant vector in the introduction of marine species worldwide.
But let's get back to Tasmania. To understand the appearance of toxic dinoflagellates, much like the manifestation of any natural hazard, one must look to the coupled social and environmental changes that made it possible. Perhaps counterintuitively, this marine organism would not have arrived at the time and in the manner it did without important changes taking place onshore. These were bound up in the larger imperatives of globalisation, but they would also transform the political ecology of Tasmanian forests and estuaries.
The global economic malaise of the 70s hit Australia hard, and in this it wasn't alone among peer nations. Japan meanwhile largely bucked this trend and experienced continued growth well into the 1970s. They required raw resources to fuel continued development. One indicator of Japan's growth was its per capita paper consumption, which nearly quintupled between 1960 and 1990. Japan's own timber resources were scarce, but the combination of its vast capital and the development of specialised bulk carriers for wood chips meant that Japanese companies could now tap a resource base that spanned the Pacific, including Australia.
This relationship seemed to benefit both parties. From the perspective of Japan, Australian forests fed the insatiable appetites of domestic pulp and paper mills. From the perspective of Australian timber industry and its political backers, it was a tool for rural development, a means to counter a growing trade deficit and a productive use of what was otherwise considered to be a waste product. If Australia's economic outlook was poor in the 1970s, Tasmania’s was worse. In 1976, the Commonwealth commissioned a Special Inquiry called the Callahan Report to diagnose this Tasmanian problem.
It succinctly concluded that geographical separation, i.e., the Bass Strait, was the key reason. The promise and peril of export-oriented development, which affected all of Australia was magnified in Tasmania. The forest products outlook meanwhile seemed promising. Only four years earlier, Tasmania had built its first export wood ship mills, one at Triabunna on the southeast coast near Hobart and two in the north near Burnie and Launceston.
The industry developed rapidly, and by the end of the 1970s 60% of Tasmanian timber ended up as wood chips bound for Japan. Wood chip carriers thus became frequent visitors to the islands deep water ports. Tasmania in other words doubled down on export dependency. The growth and development of wood shipping was an important prerequisite to the toxic algae scare, but it alone would not have proved sufficient. The toxins produced by gymnodinium catenatum only become dangerous in the presence of filter-feeding species like mussels and oysters and scallops.
Wild harvesting poses some risks, but the dense concentration of shellfish promoted through aquaculture amplifies them. Rather than the big bang of wood chipping. Commercial aquaculture in Tasmania developed in fits and starts. It began in the 1880s and it would be almost a hundred years before it grew viable. This was driven by a series of Commonwealth and Tasmanian inquiries during the recessionary 1970s that advocated further development.
The first oyster hatchery would open in 1979, but growth really escalated after the passage of Tasmania's Marine Farming Act in 1982, which formalised permitting and leasing and resulted in dozens of new start-ups in the 1980s. Aquaculture was seen as an ideal venue for investment. Shellfish farming was small compared to trout and salmon, but by 1987, it was still valued at 8 million dollars per year. The first industry groups developed. They published newsletters, hosted conferences, and lobbied politicians to promote their interests.
By 1985, farmers, scientists and fisheries bureaucrats all predicted strong growth ahead. Like wood chip exports, shellfish growers also targeted foreign markets. Unlike wood chipping, this was mostly aspirational. The most reliable markets remain focused on the mainland. Still, the US seemed particularly prime for capture. Tasmania has long marketed fisheries products as clean and green, which they believed would translate to favourable prices, especially since Tasmania was the only state that cultured the lucrative and ironically introduced Pacific oyster.
To sell in American markets however, Australian producers would need to meet strict standards the US had established after their own biotoxin crisis in the 1920s. The Commonwealth set up the Australian Shellfish Sanitation programme in 1986 to encourage export, but left further development up to the states. Unfortunately, Tasmania was just getting their programme running when the toxic algae appeared, delaying the process. But the stage had still been set. Developments and shipping technology combined with export-oriented trading strategies widen the pathways for bio invasions by the mid-80s.
Trade with Japan was particularly important. Japanese capital funded early wood shipping ventures, the volume of trade insured frequent voyages, and importantly, Japanese ships took on ballast and organisms in temperate waters, which might flourish in the temperate ports of Tasmania. The growth of the Tasmanian aquaculture industry provided yet another piece of the puzzle. When Hallegraeff discovered gymnodinium catenatum in Tasmania in 1985, he did not immediately implicate ballast water.
What he could report was that blooms were likely responsive to heavy rains that preceded them. Southeast Tasmania experienced higher than average rainfall at the end of 1985, and again in May of 1986, immediately preceding both algal blooms. But why the rains catalysed these blooms remained unclear. Perhaps they responded to reduction in salinity or the addition of inorganic or organic runoff or maybe the influx of fresh water stabilised and stratified the water column.
Hallegraeff and his students with would spend years trying to disentangle this complex suite of causal dynamics. What he could state though and did very early on was that these blooms would likely be seasonal and their effects transient, but they would be permanent. Gymnodinium catenatum has a curious life cycle. It spends a portion of its life in a resting cyst stage on the sea floor. This is a brilliant evolutionary tactic because it allows the species to essentially hibernate through less than favourable environmental conditions and can do so for many years.
Later research would confirm in fact that gymnodinium catenatum had actually arrived in the 1970s. Suitable environmental conditions, in other words, where the final pieces of the puzzle. No factor in and of itself was determinative, but the convergence of so many conditions by the 80s dramatically increased the likelihood of ballast water introduction. Response to ballast water introductions was complex, and this complexity reflected a profound degree of uncertainty about likely impacts, about methods of limiting further introduction, and also about controlling those that had already arrived.
From a global perspective, ballast water had been floated as a potential vector as early as 1908, but it would not become an object of sustained research or policy interest for over 60 years. Several notable shifts took place in the 1970s, however, which laid the groundwork for later work on the subject. Invasion biology as a discipline had grown in significance since its emergence in the 1950s. Marine and estuarine ecosystems in general received increasing interest and concern, especially as they related to oil spills and fisheries over-harvesting, but changes in biodiversity itself, a relatively new concept, received attention too. Marine issues appeared for instance during the globally significant Stockholm Conference in 1972 and including an Australian submission.
Importantly, it was during the 1970s that the International Maritime Organisation, the UN body responsible for regulating shipping, established its Marine Environment Protection Committee or MEPC, and passed the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from ships otherwise known as MARPOL. Passed in 1973 and strengthened in 1978, MARPOL both reflected an increasing awareness of the human impacts on marine environments and provided tools and platforms to change them.
Ballast water though remained a boutique concern, but this is when Australian scholarship moved centre stage. The initial focus was not Tasmania but Sydney Harbour. Beginning in the 1970s, scientists began discovering several novel species of fish. Natural range extensions seemed unlikely since they were likely from Japan, but the jury was still out about the likely method of introduction. By the time ichthyologist Eric Friese published a short article on the subject in the journal Koolewong in 1973, ballast water appeared a likely culprit. There has evolved in recent years a method of direct unintentional fish transfer, freely stated referring to bulk carriers depending on their respective cargo disposition.
These giant ships have to carry vast amounts of ballast when travelling empty between ports. The mind boggles about the potential of such an operation to inadvertently transport all kinds of small aquatic organisms around the entire world. Friese and others couldn't be sure but concerns about ballast water were growing in Australia. It was likely no coincidence then that the Canadian shellfish biologist Jay Carl Medcof began his study of ballast water that same year. In 1973, Medcof spent a year working as a consultant for the shellfish industry in New South Wales. During this trip, Medcof sampled ballast water tanks.
This was likely the first direct study of the biology of ballast water, ever. Importantly, he sampled a ship that arrived from Japan at the wood chip mill in Eden in New South Wales. Japan had been floated as a likely origin of the introduced fish in Sydney Harbour and a direct two-way trade had developed between Eden and Japan after the mill was founded in 1970. Medcof identified a host of species in the ballast tanks including crustaceans, polychaetes, a kind of marine worm, and zooplankton. Marine species, in other words, could survive the temperature and salinity changes, lack of light and other suboptimal environmental conditions of this two-week trans equatorial voyage.
This was startling enough to motivate two interrelated developments, one in policymaking and one in fishery science. On the policymaking front, a select committee in Tasmania was set up to examine pollution in the Tamar River and recommended that its Department of Environment investigate the discharge of ballast water. Apparently this was never followed up. But more sustained activity took place in 1975 when six Commonwealth departments and CSIRO created a committee to determine the extent of the problem.
They conducted a literature review and actually sent diplomatic inquiries to overseas ports and regulators. Their work revealed that while a lot of countries were aware of the potential problem of ballast water, none had undertaken research. Further investigation was tabled until after the publication of a study by the New South Wales State fisheries scientist Rob Williams. Funded by a grant from the Fishing Industry Research Committee, a state industry partnership to fund fisheries research.
His study of ballast water lasted between 1976 and 1978. This study would presage much of the research of the next two decades. It focused unsurprisingly on ports serving Japan, especially wood shipping ports such as Eden, but also Triabunna, near Hobart. He found 16 non-native species alive in ballast water. His report noted that sediments sucked into the tanks, not just water could be a method of introduction. After he observed sailors dumping it overboard in port. He estimated the amount of ballast entering Australian ports and even evaluated a potential management tool called Ballast Water Exchange.
This simply refers to the act of pumping out coastal ballast water, mid-ocean, which would conceivably kill some species. Importantly, he also noted the limitations of his work. Williams’ study lacked the taxonomic expertise to identify much of what they discovered on a species level. This taxonomic limitation combined with a poor understanding of what existed in Australian ports made it very difficult to estimate the number much less the impact of these invasives.
What was needed then were baseline surveys. To get a sense of how environments were changing, you needed a standard against which to compare later findings. In 1984, a research team led by the taxonomist, Dr Pat Hutchings at the Australian Museum, received another grant to do just that at Twofold Bay near Eden. This was not the first biological survey of an Australian port, but it was the first motivated by concerns about ballast water.
Her studies' findings in 1986 were notably more nuanced than the earlier New South Wales Fisheries Report. It found six marine species that could conclusively be determined to be non-indigenous, and of those only two seemed likely to have arrived in ballast water and only one, the Pacific oyster, posed a threat to fisheries. Hutchings’ group followed this up with a set of guidelines for conducting these types of surveys and a review of management techniques in 1987.
What these reports collectively emphasised was that much more information, especially baseline studies, would be needed before management could even be considered. What we see then is increasing concern by scientists and policy makers across multiple levels of governance since the early 1970s. There was even an abortive attempt to introduce the issue on the international arena in the early 80s when Australia brought the issue to IMOs, MEPC.
This elicited no reaction, so the issue was essentially dropped. Researchers and policymakers knew that ballast water was a potential problem, but it was a problem that would be difficult to translate into policy. The true risk was difficult to determine, especially since the first studies by Williams and Hutchings made it clear how little was known about the marine environment, especially of ports. How many species had arrived in Australia? And how many would in the future which species were problematic?
No introduction had up until this point seemed particularly dangerous enough to act in this ocean of uncertainty. It was in this scientific and policy context that toxic algae appeared. Gymnodinium catenatum provided the catalyst that transformed low-level policy interest into full-blown discussions about regulation. The toxic dinoflagellate scare was, in other words, a focusing event. Toxic algae posed a clear and direct threat to human health, which set it apart from prior introductions.
Importantly, however, it wasn't even clear at first whether this species had arrived in ballast, but two characteristics of gymnodinium catenatum strongly implicated ballast water. First, the species had an uneven biogeographical distribution. In other words, it appeared in a few select ports around the world. Plenty of species are cosmopolitan, meaning they're just generally distributed, but this seemed unlikely for gymnodinium catenatum. Its appearances had been disjointed and the distances between them was too great to be explained by natural movement.
Ballast water was one potential explanation. Gymnodinium catenatum’s biology and life cycle also made it a likely candidate for ballast water introduction. Remember, the species could essentially hibernate in its benthic cyst stage. The species was hardy in other words, and perhaps hardy enough to survive the harsh conditions of ballast tanks. This also means it didn't just occupy the water column. The cysts were in sediment. Williams had already hypothesised that sediment sucked into tanks, not just water, might be a secondary method of transfer. The biology and bio geography of gymnodinium catenatum, not just its proximity to this wood chipping port at Triabunna made it a likely contender for a ballast introduction.
Hallegraeff and his colleagues would not conclusively demonstrate that the species was connected to ballast for several years, but this suspicion was enough for policy makers in Hobart and Canberra to act on the issue by the fall of 1988. Between 1987 and 1989, the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service or AQIS sampled over 200 ballast tanks of ships entering Australian ports. They sampled every coast, including at Eden and Triabunna. 40% turned dinoflagellates and 6% were toxic. While this did not include gymnodinium catenatum, it revealed other toxic algae species, including at Port Phillip Bay near Melbourne.
It's mere presence motivated shellfish farmers there to proactively close their farms. And if the implications for aquaculture weren't already clear, Hallegraeff and others gave interviews and published warnings in public-facing trade journals and periodicals. Multiple problematic dinoflagellate species had now been discovered and scientists warned that any one of them might result in new farm closures. Beyond biotoxins, ballast might also transport exotic diseases that affected shellfish or even fin fish. This danger seemed particularly ominous to Tasmanians who had long marketed their waters as free of these diseases. Fisheries demanded regulation as a result.
On top of this, the global evidence of the danger of ballast water introductions were building. No bio invasion was more significant than the discovery of zebra mussels in the Great Lakes in 1988. Zebra mussels are a black sea species that had arrived in US and Canadian waters in ballast tanks. The mussel spreads across seemingly any surface, and in addition to its significant ecological impact, it produced regional headlines in 1989 when mussels clogged the cooling pipes of power plants and threatened the water supply of seaside towns.
By 1990, it was being described as a disaster worse than the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The economic costs appeared to be staggering. Reports of this new bio invasion were shared in Australia, both internally among policymakers and also in the newspapers. These stories combined with evidence of new Australian introductions and with pressure from the fisheries lobby convinced the Commonwealth to act.
First and foremost, Commonwealth agencies sought to stem the tide of future invasions. Although several agencies could have led these efforts, AQIS quickly assumes stewardship. An AQIS-led effort had many benefits. They already managed imports and exports. They had a strong scientific foundation. And they had developed productive relationships with industry, including international shipping. That the problem was ballast water would seem to provide an obvious benefit. Policy could focus on one industry, and in fact, one part of that one industry. If you solve the problem of ballast, you neutralise the threat. And on top of this, toxic dinoflagellates remained the central object of concern because of yet another biological characteristic, they're microscopic. If you solve toxic algae, you'd likely solve almost everything else.
Luckily, the shipping industry seemed to have a ready-made strategy built into their regular operation. Ships already de-ballasted and re-ballasted. They could do this all at once, but maybe they could do so in stages. If they conducted either type of exchange, mid voyage as opposed to near ports, they might conceivably discharge or kill their unwelcome passengers. The Williams report had already indicated in fact that some Japanese ships performed this operation not to rid their ballast of any species but likely to meet some pollution standards.
New questions then arose, should ballast water exchange be mandatory or voluntary? Should it target one country? Several? Apply a general rule? Since dinoflagellates continued to dominate discussion and since the greatest risks seem to emanate from Japan, officials even toyed with the idea of unilateral mandatory requirements for countries harbouring gymnodinium catenatum, including Japan. Perhaps unsurprisingly Japanese industry made it quite clear their displeasure about this strategy, but so did Australian shippers.
From their perspective there remained so many unknowns. Could ballast water exchange completely clean ballast tanks? How would you even know? There are no ready-made tests you could use to sample a ballast tank. What about other strategies like treatments? For instance, biocides or filtering? There were other open questions about the regional role of shipping. Which countries were most likely to supply the new invasives? What regions of Australia were most susceptible? What were the social, environmental and financial costs of action or inaction? Was ballast even the most problematic vector?
The shipping industry was adamant that guidelines be voluntary. Any added cost would place Australia in a competitive disadvantage. The practice could also be dangerous if conducted in rough waters. Ballast not only improves ship stability, it compensates for what are called sheer forces or bending moments. If improper de- or re-ballasting occurs, especially in rougher waters, this can create stress fractures in the whole of a ship. Ballast water exchange would never be off the table. Indeed, it would remain the only viable strategy for years to come. Hallegraeff and his collaborators at BHP would trial ballast water exchange on three voyages in fact, between 1990 and 1992, including to test its structural effects on the ship.
The concern for ship safety added yet another variable and an expanding list of requirements. The ideal strategy would need to be ecologically sound, cost effective, safe and efficient. With so many unknowns and the safety of ships at stake, AQIS moved forward with voluntary guidelines for international shipping. These would be drafted in 1989 and they would go into force in 1990. At roughly the same time, the Bureau of Rural Resources, a semi-independent research organisation within the Federal Department of Primary Industries and Energy established a ballast water steering committee to address this issue. The committee divided responsibility between three working groups.
The most active was the scientific working group tasked with advising the steering committee about the nature of the threat and possible solutions. The working group included familiar figures, Williams, Hutchings, Hallegraeff, staffers from agencies like AQIS, representatives from the states, the shipping industry, as well as a very prominent role filled by BHP researchers and naval architects. The group was chaired by Dr Merrill Williams, a fisheries biologist, and then director of the Bureau of Rural Resources.
One of the first completed projects of the scientific working group would also become one of its most important and oft-cited outcomes. In 1991, the scientific working group released its review of existing knowledge on exotic marine organisms and ballast water. The report was authored by Dr Madeline Jones, a biologist for the Bureau of Rural Resources. This would be the most up-to-date synthesis of all ballast water and ballast water adjacent resource in Australia published up until this point. It summarised how ballast water introductions took place, which ships were the most likely carriers and which ports in Australia were most at risk.
It mapped total tonnage of bulk carriers, recognising that the ports with greatest traffic could be most vulnerable. Her report also noted that this was likely a simplification. Tasmania, for instance, has several ports and none compared to the size of the largest on the mainland. Other factors like whether the environments between ports of origin and destination matched were just as if not more important. It noted that bulk carriers posed the greatest risk among ships and identified likeliest donor countries, and since aquaculture remained a subject of interest, Jones mapped those areas as well.
The report was also important because it acknowledged a great deal of uncertainty about this issue. For instance, it's quite difficult to determine something as seemingly simple as whether a species was introduced or not. A species we might think of as native might actually have been brought to Australian shores many years, sometimes centuries before.
This problem is surprisingly common, especially in Australia with its poorly surveyed coastlines. Jones' emphasis on uncertainty was important in part because it justified future research by the scientific working committee, but it also contained an implicit mandate to evaluate risk. Since no strategy to prevent species introduction was considered foolproof, managing risk became the order of the day. Risk assessment would become the first step on this path that would come to define the Australian approach to ballast water management.
The report ultimately concluded that quote, “The risks associated with ballast water discharge in Australian ports are significant.” As Jones suspected, this would have great implications at home. And since the goal was to publish this report in advance of a vote at the next MEPC meeting, it had international significance as well. By 1990, Australia had voluntary guidelines for ballast water management, and these were the second international guidelines in the world.
Canada having released its own voluntary guidelines in response to zebra mussels a few months earlier. The news of Australia's initiative made national headlines. It encouraged shippers to incorporate ballast water exchange into their planning, to communicate their activities with AQIS and it was hoped, actively participate as partners in further refinement of the policy. This action alone would've established Australia as a leading nation in the effort to contain species introductions.
Australia's international prominence was even more firmly established when its delegation, along with Canada and the US introduced a resolution to IMO to control ballast water introductions. According to Dennis Patterson, then Associate Director of Border Security at AQIS who led the Australian push at the IMO. Their initial attempts to get ballast water on the agenda of MEPC meetings was faltering. Patterson was a seasoned bureaucrat, but the IMOs MEPC was quote, “More bureaucratic than any bureaucracy I know.” With hundreds of people from dozens of nations and organisations Patterson related, “You put your hand up to speak on Monday. You probably got on about Thursday morning for two minutes.”
On top of that, most representatives came from shipping. Australia's delegation, had shipping, but also included quarantine officials and sometimes scientists. They spoke different languages. Since MEPC rules limited the number of formal working groups, Australia and a handful of other countries met informally. Patterson chaired the group and the Australian delegation proposed rules drafted by Australian researchers.
What they ultimately produced were the first guidelines for preventing the introduction of unwanted aquatic organisms and pathogens. Unsurprisingly, these were the first international rules, were modelled on the Australian guidelines. Progress was slow, but it was aided by new research coming out of Australia from the scientific working group. After the IMO granted the request to develop a formal working group, global interest increased dramatically. By 1993, the IMO would adopt these guidelines.
This would be the first step in a new phase that would lead to a globally binding agreement. The speed with which these changes occurred may seem remarkable considering how obscure the problem had been just a few years earlier. Between 1985 and 1990, marine species introductions vaulted from near total obscurity into an object of national and international concern. Anxieties about the risk of future introductions had encouraged a massive global industry responsible for transporting 80% of everything essentially, to tackle an environmental issue. What began as a Tasmanian issue now had national and even global significance.
Still, we shouldn't forget Tasmania. These changes had very local effects and sometimes in surprising ways. I'll share one example. It's a neat bookend to a story that began with forests and aquaculture. Ballast would again become an object of political and economic significance right back where the story began. 1989 was one of the critical periods in the context of forest resources in Tasmania. An ascendant Tasmanian green political movement fresh off its victory in the Franklin Dam controversy had taken on wood chipping as their new bête noire.
The time was ripe. Several areas in Western Tasmania had already been registered as World Heritage sites in 1982 and additional areas in the Lemonthyme and southern forest seemed worthy of this designation, at least according to environmental groups like the Tasmanian Wilderness Society and the Australian Conservation Foundation. The wood chipping industry buoyed by an improving Japanese pulp market and depreciating Australian dollar had only expanded in the meantime though.
The proposal in 1987 to build a world scale 1 billion dollar pulp mill at Wesley Vale in Northern Tasmania was the clearest sign of these boom times and considering its likely impact on native hardwood forests, it became the new front line of Tasmanian activism. The contest over Wesley Vale would occupy most attention in the late 1980s, but at the same time, another wood chipping controversy gripped Southern Tasmania. A company called Huon Forest Products applied to the Commonwealth in 1987 for an export wood chip licence at Whale Point in the Huon Estuary.
This was an economically depressed area with little primary industry, so boosters promoted its potential for economic development. The company successfully appealed for access to forest resources and a share of Tasmania's timber quota. The Hawke government granted export approval at the end of 1988 as part of a larger package of deals intended to diffuse the simmering conflict between environmentalists and loggers. It did nothing of the sort. Instead, a unique coalition of corporate rivals, environmentalists, loggers and grassroots opposition coalesced to contest this new mill. By 1989, Huon Forest Products Mill had still not received an operating licence from Tasmania, so time remained to put a stop to this exercise.
The activist Peg Putt who would later become a Green Party member of the Tasmanian House of Assembly became lead spokesperson for the grassroots Huon Protection Group. They saw Ballast Water as an opportunity to expand this coalition. When the Huon Protection Group obtained a leaked environmental impact statement that revealed serious risk to local Huon aquaculture, they alerted the press. Ballast water introductions were now front and centre. Over the following weeks and months. Environment Tasmania and the head of Tasmania's marine farming division, Dr Simon Stanley were bombarded with questions from aquaculture lobbyists asking about ballast water.
From their perspective, time was of the essence. “Waiting for national or international authorities to protect our waters was equivalent to putting our head in the sand and quoting disaster”, they said. In fact, their pressure was intense enough to convince Stanley that greater emphasis should be placed on ballast water treatment. He was also on the scientific working group and so he would transit this concern back to them. So, in this small way, the fisheries lobby and Huon Forests products controversy would affect ongoing research. In the meantime, the Department of Sea Fisheries brokered a meeting between aquaculture and Huon Forest products.
Aquaculture eventually pressured the wood chipping company to come up with their own ballast water solution. Huon Forest Products assured Tasmanian officials, they'd take care of it. They even contracted chemical engineers to develop a strategy to treat ballast tanks with biocides. Ironically, most of these proposals had already been dismissed by Williams a year earlier and alternative more rigorous studies by the scientific working group were already underway. While Huon Forest Products, a board of proposal to essentially solve ballast water in a few weeks may seem a ridiculous act of hubris, it also reflected their desperation to resolve at least this one complaint in their battle for licensure.
They wouldn't succeed. Premier Grey's liberal government would lose their election in 1989 to a green labour coalition, which had included opposition to the Huon Forest Products Mill as part of their coalition agreement. To be clear, ballast water was not the central element of this election story, but the increasing concern about the impacts of wood chipping on aquaculture and the marine environment were nevertheless significant. Aquaculture had already become a multimillion-dollar industry at this point and promising greater gains ahead.
The defence of one growing export industry, in other words, compensated for losses in a politically contentious alternative. This is not the end of the story. The post-1994 period was equally important. In 1994, the scientific working group would dissolve, and a new steering committee would form advised by a new research advisory group. The Commonwealth also established a new centre for research on introduced marine pests in that same year. Collectively, these groups would carry ballast water studies into the new millennium. They developed new tools for management and risk assessment, tackled the appearance of novel pests and informed ongoing international negotiations at the IMO.
These international negotiations would go through many twists and turns but would eventually lead to today's Ballast Water Management Convention, a global legally binding agreement that went into force in 2017. As a fellow at the library, I've also been researching this phase of ballast water management and it will feature in future articles on the role of quarantine and risk and ballast management. Frame the science in a global perspective and explore the ways that introduced species catalysed technological change in shipping.
This talk, however, had a different goal and attempted to answer a different set of questions. The marine species introductions discovered in Tasmania in the 1980s emerged at the conjuncture of multiple environmental and social changes. Tasmania had embarked on a trajectory of increasing raw resource expectation and an amplification of trends in Australia at large. The particular emphasis on wood chipping and aquaculture in Tasmania set it apart.
Wood chipping deepened Tasmania's connection to the temperate waters of Japan, the expansion of shellfish aquaculture and appearance of suitable environmental conditions supplied the length that connected algae and their toxins to human consumers. The discovery of toxic algae would catalyse new research and policy making on marine species introduction, but this was only possible because of a decade of prior research on ballast water introductions had demonstrated that this was not strictly a Tasmanian problem. It wasn't even just Australian, see zebra mussels.
Science and policymaking developed quickly for the next several years in coordination with industry. Shipping was by far the most influential, but the small aquaculture industry exhorted disproportionate influence, no episode made this clearer than the Huon Forest Products controversy. All of this is to say that I paid a lot of attention to the first three questions and haven't even tackled this last one, and this is partly because it depends on what we judge an effective response to be and on what time scale.
As an environmental historian, I'm usually drawn to the longer view and since none of the structural preconditions that led to this crisis have lessened and a host of other factors including but not limited to climate change, have worsened. It's possible even understandable to be kind of ambivalent about them. This isn't the only way to view this history though. It's also the story of growing awareness of marine ecosystems. Our impacts on them and the way they interact with changes on land.
It's a story of remarkable scientific activity which moved an issue that virtually nobody knew about into a subject that warranted a defined and coordinated national and international policy response. From this perspective, I move to feel a sense of cautious optimism. So maybe perhaps by way of conclusion then, and since this research is ongoing, you'll excuse me if I leave this as an open question. Thank you.
Luke Hickey: Thanks Adam, for taking us on that journey. Not only through the history and the research, I think of the national and international responses you were talking about, but also giving a sense of the depth of collections. Pardon the depth joke there. Sorry. We now have time for some questions as we're streaming and recording the presentation, if you do have a question, please wait for the microphone to reach you before you ask your questions. Open to the floor.
Speaker 3: Thank you very much, Adam. That was absolutely fascinating. I'd just like to make a comment actually to begin with. I've been working in marine biosecurity for the last 20 years and I thought your presentation was absolutely excellent. So, you predate when I started researching this field, but I'm aware of some of the issues, but you've really filled it up for me, so I found that really interesting. Perhaps I could just sort of go on to say that this is an area still of active research.
We've had a marine biosecurity emergency that is evolving in Western Australia with the incursion of a colonial ascidian. To give an idea of what it's like, its common name is, well commonly referred to as sea vomit. And so, we are working very actively to try and prevent that spreading to the east coast. There are a whole lot of other things that are going on, but certainly ballast water is front and centre of our research, so thank you.
Adam Sundberg: Thank you.
Speaker 4: I was just quite curious about – you said there was a 2017 international response, so did the United Nations like UNAP or anyone get involved in this process?
Adam Sundberg: Yes, so this is – the Marine Environment Protection Committee is part of the United Nations. This is an UN-led stewarded process. So, they've been front and centre from really the start. And the start for them was really – got started in the 1990s. But I mean one of the things that surprised me about this is there were already a board of attempts to do something about this on the international level already in the 1980s. It's not just the United Nations that's involved though. All sorts of nations and including some states have their own ballast water guidelines and regulations, and ideally they correspond to this international global agreement.
It's actually quite complex and although my focus isn't on this much more recent phenomena, it's something I have to wrap my head around because it is a fascinating and extremely daunting collection of rules, guidelines, and entities that are involved in putting this all together, which I mean makes sense. The global shipping industry is equally large, complex and diverse.
Dennis Patterson: Thank you, Adam, for your very informative, well-balanced delivery today. Two points. Firstly, I appreciate the emphasis that you've given to our country in this matter, but as having been involved – one of the many people involved in it in the early stages, I'm just wondering how much your final work will involve – will include what was going on in other countries. For example, your home country was at the forefront almost of the research of these matters, although I accept that we did a lot of good research here in Australia.
People such as Dr Jim Carlton for example, in the US had pushed this along as far as possible. So, I'm just wondering if your eventual outcome of this fellowship will make reference to other research that was happening internationally. Secondly, the other point that I'd make is you can look upon this issue two ways and think, my God, that was very slow, took us 25 years to get to any form of international regulation.
But you can also look back at it the other way and think that was pretty fast when we could not tell those who were the so-called perpetrators of this what they could do to minimise the risk. We didn't have solutions in those days, and so it seems to me to have been a very short process considering that we were really talking about risk minimization, all this sort of thing, being fairly new to the shipping industry, a very willing international shipping industry.
If you would frequently say to the world and we would frequently say within IMO and MEPC, let me assure you. “OK, we're prepared to help. Just tell us what you want us to do.” Hence the problem. We couldn't tell them exactly what we wanted to do at that stage, and we were paddling like hell underwater with all our research programmes in an effort to do so. Just an observation. Thank you.
Adam Sundberg: Thank you. Dennis. If it wasn't already clear, this is Dennis Patterson who is heavily involved in international negotiations and was also very heavily involved in Australian deliberation and part of the scientific working group as well, rather the steering committee. So, the first question, I wouldn't know what dinoflagellates are, much less toxic dinoflagellates had I not actually begun this research on the US part of the story. As I noted this larger book-length project, I mean it, it's kind of long array, but the last third of it is the post-war period.
I already knew about zebra mussels. I think most environmental historians, and most Americans probably are aware of them to a certain extent or not. And it was in the context of reading about zebra mussels in congressional hearings, for instance, that I learned about Jim Carlton, who is, I mean, widely regarded to be a sort of father of marine bio invasion science.
He testified before Congress, he wrote this seminal article in 1985. It was actually in the original version of this talk, but as you've noted, I am focusing exclusively on the Australian part of the story here because this is, I mean, this is the National Library of Australia. They probably have access to Jim Carlton's work, but I'm more interested in finding out this particular perspective. But in answer to your question, absolutely. United States is going to be front and centre. Actually, very early on, Canada is also going to be front and centre as well.
Actually, related to your comment, I know it wasn't so much of a question, and I take it for what it is and appreciate it. Because how we judge effective response and across what time scale, I had to – I was sort of on the fence about whether to consider this fast or slow. And of course, if we compare this to action on – international action on global warming for instance, this seems incredibly fast.
The fact that it's industry is something that is fascinating and actually the relationship between industry, the shipping industry in Australia and later regulations and in the US is quite different. One thing that I've noted and that I didn't include here is how – and part of the rationale I think that incentivised the shipping industry to act quickly and proactively is because the last thing in the world that they wanted was to have all sorts of different guidelines all around the world.
They'd have to manage them all. They'd have to be in contact with all – they'd have to implement new technologies, very different ones in some cases. That there would just be this hodgepodge of global regulations. I think the Australian shipping industry knew quite early on that this was something that they wanted to avoid, and so this is something – and this comes out in some of the documentation as well from a very early period. Thank you for that comment and question.
Luke Hickey: Thanks, Adam. We do have one more question from online. Now, I'm not even going to try and pronounce the blooms. But the question is are the blooms still happening today? Have they proved to be seasonal? And you touched a little bit on the spores, resting on the sea floor. Is it still a problem and is it turning into sort of an evolving problem? And that'll be our last question.
Adam Sundberg: Yes, thank you for that question as well. The first two toxic algae blooms occurred in 1985 and 1986, and there would be – they didn't come back every single year in closed shellfish farms. There would be a big one in 1993, if I remember right, another big one in 1997. I mean, this is permanent. They're not going anywhere, but they do require specific environmental conditions. That meant that they weren't necessarily annual, but they are permanent.
Is this a problem? Well, they're still there, so I suppose it could be, and at the same time, there are other toxic dinoflagellates, other species that produce paralytic shellfish poisoning and a variety of other things as well I didn't even touch on. But don't be afraid of eating oysters in Tasmania. I just ate some. I mean, they have a biotoxin monitoring programme. It's quite well established.
Luke Hickey: Thanks so much, Adam. Thank you, and I can certainly add toxic dinoflagellates to my list of things that I learned today. As we draw to a close, a couple of quick plugs before we leave, I hope that you can join us next week for our next fellowship lecture, Waves and Currents, The movement of constitutional texts and ideas across Oceania, by Dr Anna Dziedzic. Next Thursday, the 6th of June – 8th of June, sorry.
And our website. You can also visit our website, National Library of Australia website, which is the place where you'll be able to find details of our upcoming events. As well as the recordings of our interesting and diverse recent talks by fellows. These recordings are also available on our YouTube channel. Thank you for attending today, both in person and online, and please join me once again in congratulating Dr Sundberg for today's fascinating presentation.
Microscopic Organism – Big Impact
In his current work, Adam is exploring the many ways that marine introductions have catalyzed environmental, technological, and scientific change over time, from the eighteenth to the late twentieth century. Bioinvasions, or invasive species have also been the subject of the book Adam is currently writing.
Adam’s research has certainly revealed a lot about the depth of the library’s collections, which evidently contain a wealth of information about the history of several different species such as invasive algae, seastars and more. Quite different from what most of us know as the library’s chief export – the proverbial bookworm.
The primary focus of Adam’s research was a specific species of algae called Gymnodinium catenatum, which created a public health scare in the 1980s and motivated changes in bioinvasion science and policymaking.
‘My goal was to explain why these algae appeared and why they catalysed policy changes in shipping,’ Adam says.
‘To do so, I needed ballast water studies, environmental impacts statements, conference proceedings, industry reports, manuscripts, newspapers and more.
‘Most of the documents I accessed are unavailable outside Australia and many are only available at the National Library of Australia.’
Below the surface
While conducting his research, Dr Sundberg was surprised by the depth of the library’s manuscript collection.
'I hadn’t initially anticipated using it as much as I did,’ Adam commented.
‘Before I arrived, I was curious whether any Australian environmentalist groups were aware of the ballast water issue. Tasmania in the 1980s was a hotbed of green activism, particularly around the issue of export wood chipping. Since ballast borne introductions were tied to wood chipping ships specifically, I expected at least some awareness if not an obvious inclusion of the issue in their ongoing campaigns. Evidence of green interest was at first entirely absent, until I began delving into the library’s collection of environmentalist manuscripts.’
Woodchip mill linked to toxic algae
One of the more fascinating stories uncovered during his research was that of the Huon Forest Products mill and its connection to ballast water. Huon Forest Products was a company that proposed a new woodchip mill at Whale Point in the Huon Estuary in Southern Tasmania in the late 80s. They received export approval to ship woodchips from the Commonwealth, but by 1989, they still hadn’t received licensure from Tasmania.
In 1989, a grassroots environmental organisation called the Huon Protection Group obtained a leaked environmental impact statement of this proposed new mill, which revealed significant impacts on the local marine environment and released it to the press. The recognition that a new woodchip mill would result in the arrival of large woodchip ships, which had been revealed as carriers of toxic algae, motivated the aquaculture industry to join this opposition coalition.
‘Aquaculture joined a unique group of industry organisations and environmentalists to pressure the Labor-Green coalition to oppose the mill. When that coalition defeated the Liberal government, further plans for the woodchip mill were scrapped’ Adam said.
‘Ballast water introductions ended up being a small part of this political story as well.’
Embark on a journey of discovery with a National Library Fellowship
The National Library of Australia offers a range of fellowships and scholarships to researchers, writers, artists and young scholars across various disciplines.
Adam spoke highly of the program, saying ‘This fellowship was more productive and more enjoyable than I could’ve imagined.
‘The fellowship program is very well run, the library collections are deep and accessible, and living and working in Canberra is a joy.’
The Fellowships program gives the opportunity to access rich collections and enhance the depth of study. In turn, the program also paves the way for greater public knowledge and a deeper understanding of the potential that lies within our collections.