There is a critical issue that affects the maritime industry now and will affect it even more in the future. It begins with a small stream of water.

This stream meanders along at less than 3 cubic meters per second. However, this apparently insignificant stream has major consequences for everybody in this country - consequences that are far out of proportion to its size.This stream is the accumulated flow of ballast water from commercial ships in U.S. ports and coastal waters each year. It is the habitat for a host of non-indigenous species that inadvertently hitch rides in commercial ships in foreign ports.

Unopposed by their natural predators and competitors, some of these species thrive in our waters to the point that they seriously disrupt our ecosystems. They can have staggering impacts on our food supply, economy, health, and overall biodiversity.

This stream of ballast water carries hundreds, possibly thousands, of species ranging from microscopic bacteria and viruses to mollusks and crustaceans. Managing the threat posed by the introduction and spread of non-indigenous species is quickly coming to be viewed as the most pressing marine environmental problem facing the United States.

When invasive species spread, they can cause enormous damage. It is estimated that the zebra mussel alone will have caused more than $5 billion in damage to water pipes, boat hulls, and other hard surfaces in the Great Lakes by the end of next year.

The economic losses from aquatic nuisance species are significant. What is being done about this issue?

There have been two federal laws and one executive order directed its way this decade. The Non-indigenous Aquatic Nuisance Prevention Control Act of 1990 created the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force (ANSTF) and required mandatory ballast-water exchanges to protect the Great Lakes.

The National Invasive Species Act of 1996 re-authorized the earlier act and amended it by extending ballast-water management regulations for the rest of U.S. waters. It lays out a regime of voluntary ballast-water exchange.

This year, an Executive Order directed federal agencies to prevent the introduction of invasive species.

The U.S. Coast Guard established the mandatory ballast-water exchange program in 1993 in response to the 1990 law. To comply with the 1996 law, we implemented voluntary national guidelines in July of this year.

The Coast Guard is randomly sampling vessels to assess the truthfulness of their reported actions, and we are exploring promising technologies that offer better long-term approaches than ballast exchange.

The voluntary nature of this program has come under criticism from a variety of interests. The intent of the 1996 law is to give industry the opportunity to demonstrate that it can be a good corporate citizen without the immediate threat of civil and criminal penalties that looms over vessels calling on Great Lakes ports.

The Coast Guard is not the only authority with interest in the issue. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been asked by environmental interests to regulate ballast water under the Clean Water Act. The United States is also working with the International Maritime Organization to develop a legally binding ballast water management treaty. The California legislature passed a bill on ballast-water management that goes beyond federal regulations and requires implementation of ballast-water management practices.

These prospective agency enforcement actions, international treaties, and state laws reveal one truth about the connection between aquatic nuisance species and ballast water management: We can be absolutely sure that the aquatic nuisance species problem will attract a lot of solutions from a lot of directions.

Undoubtedly, the solutions will impose requirements on the maritime industry; however, the requirements may not consider the interests and concerns of those who will be asked to effect whatever solutions are imposed.

The Coast Guard must submit a report to Congress by Jan. 1, 2002, on the level of vessel compliance with the voluntary guidelines and the effectiveness of those voluntary guidelines. That report will determine whether we follow a voluntary or a mandatory regime.

It is critical that the maritime industry encourages maximum participation of its members in the voluntary program. Higher participation will lead to better data. Better data will lead to better decisions on an issue that has the potential to affect us all very significantly.

The Coast Guard's goal is to address this problem prudently and reasonably. I do not want a mandated solution if voluntary measures can prove adequate, or a solution that doesn't respect the legitimate needs of different classes of ships.

I do want an approach that protects the environment without crippling the marine industry and builds on the cooperative partnerships that have yielded so much progress on other marine safety and environmental protection issues. One that works toward feasible technological solutions that makes sense for all of us.

With that goal, the Coast Guard remains committed to working with environment, industry and government interests in addressing the threats posed by ballast water.