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Environmental Groups Sue to Prevent Invasive Species Infestations in the San Francisco Bay and Delta

A suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California against three federal agencies charging that a massive expansion project at the Port of Oakland would unlawfully allow more harmful invasive species to enter San Francisco Bay.
February 7, 2001
San Francisco, CA — 
San Francisco BayKeeper, a project of WaterKeepers Northern California, and the Center for Marine Conservation today filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California against three federal agencies charging that a massive expansion project at the Port of Oakland would unlawfully allow more harmful invasive species to enter San Francisco Bay.

The groups sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service to comply with the Endangered Species Act and ensure adequate mitigation of a multi-year dredging and expansion project at the Port of Oakland.

The $252 million project will significantly increase the number of vessels coming directly from foreign ports to the Bay Area. These vessels discharge ballast water containing non-native species into San Francisco Bay, where they can spread around the Bay and into the Delta. Because these invasive species threaten native Bay and Delta species, federal agencies must review the impacts of the expansion project and require the Port to put needed controls in place that protect local threatened and endangered wildlife.

"Non-native species are the number two threat to native endangered and threatened species nationwide, just behind destroying their habitat," said Linda Sheehan, Pacific Region Director for the Center for Marine Conservation. Ballast water discharge from vessels is the major source of aquatic non-native in the Bay/Delta region; in the last decade, ballast water discharges have accounted for 53 to 88 percent of the invasive species introduced into San Francisco Bay.

"The problem is growing. More non-native species are becoming established at a faster rate, and once they're here, they're here to stay," stated Ms. Sheehan.

"State regulators have stated that invasive species may be the single largest contamination threat to the Bay ecosystem," added Jonathan Kaplan, the San Francisco BayKeeper. "The San Francisco Bay/Delta region is already home to over 234 non-native organisms, making it one of the most invaded estuaries in the world," he noted.

Just one species, the Asian clam, causes $1 billion in damage nationwide every year. In San Francisco Bay, the Asian clam is a voracious eater and is wiping out the bottom of the food chain, starving wildlife such as native opossum shrimp that are a food source for other animals. Because invasive species can alter and poison entire food webs and ecosystems, they pose a risk to all of the native species of the Bay/Delta ecosystem and a great risk to threatened and endangered species, which include the brown pelican, Coho salmon, tidewater goby, and chinook salmon.

The Chinese mitten crab, which may have been brought in via ships' ballast water and which remains a ballast water problem, can reproduce at an incredible rate and has spread throughout the Delta. It is predicted to spread up to the largest dams in the state and may imperil the state's threatened and endangered salmon populations due to the crabs' appetite for juvenile salmon.

"The state water quality agency looked at this problem and specifically decided that there is no 'safe' level of invasive species in the Bay," said Ms. Sheehan. "Yet ships arriving from foreign ports dump up to a billion gallons of ballast water laden with non-native organisms into the San Francisco Bay/Delta Estuary each year."

The proposed Port expansion will bring in even more invasive species into the Bay every day. As scientists have learned from the zebra mussel and Asian clam, introduction of just one new species can devastate the health of the Bay and Delta, which is currently the subject of a multi-billion dollar restoration effort.

The suit specifically alleges that the Port's mitigation of the harm caused by invasive species introduced by the expansion project is inadequate. To date, the Port has offered only to comply with an existing state law to require ballast water exchange at sea and to spend a limited amount on further studies. However, ballast water exchange has proven to be ineffective at preventing non-native species from entering the Bay, and no effort to date will curb the significant increase of invasive species in the Bay and Delta that the project will cause.

Spokespersons for the groups noted that the Port of Oakland is the fourth busiest container-port in the nation with gross revenues near $1.4 billion, and is the second busiest port in the state. "As the Port is an industry leader, we hoped that federal regulators would encourage the Port to be a leader in preventing species introductions," said Mr. Kaplan. "Instead, they didn't even uphold the minimum legal requirements."

"We hope that this lawsuit will ensure that we do not continue to play invasion roulette with the health of our Bay by avoiding real mitigation," said Deborah Sivas, Directing Attorney for the Earthjustice Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford, which is representing plaintiffs in the suit.


Contact:
Jonathan Kaplan, San Francisco BayKeeper (415) 561-2299 x14
Linda Sheehan, Center for Marine Conservation (415) 391-6204
Deborah Sivas, Earthjustice Environmental Law Clinic (650) 723-0325