FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS about shipbreaking and the risk of non-native species associated with hull fouling communities

Unless noted, these answers were written to specifically address questions associated with the proposed dismantling of the "ghost" or "mothball" fleet currently moored in Suisun Bay, California.

This FAQ was compiled by the Aquatic Bioinvasions Research and Policy Institute at the request of the Oregon Invasive Species Council. None of these answers should be construed as policy recommendations. Questions and comments may be directed to the ABRPI.

Click here for more information on hullfouling research at ABRPI



•  Q: What is shipbreaking? Also known as ship scrapping or ship recycling, it refers to the process of dismantling ships and selling their parts for scrap, primarily their steel content. Due to labor costs most of the world's shipbreaking is now done in Asian countries. Current policy practices neccessitate domestic dismantling of Maritime Administration (MARAD) and US Navy owned vessels.

Section 1158 of the Merchant Marine Act of 1986 (46 USC App. 1158) gives the Secretary of Transportation the authority to sell or scrap obsolete vessels transferred to or acquired by MARAD.

Section 6 of the National Maritime Heritage Act of 1994 (PL 103-451) directs the Secretary of Transportation to dispose of vessels in the National Defense Reserve Fleet not assigned to the Ready Reserve Force by September, 1999 (later extended to September 2006) in a manner that maximizes the return (those funds to be allocated to the Maritime Heritage grants program established in the same act).

Neither act requires domestic shipbreaking consideration. However, the Toxic Substances and Control Act of 1976 (15 USC 53 or TSCA often pronounced like the opera) regulates the production, storage and disposal of hazardous substances such as PCBs, asbestos and other materials and thus, due to the general TSCA prohibition on the export of PCBs, foreign disposal of obsolete vessels is not considered a commercially practicable option by MARAD (see Report to Congress on the Progress of the Vessel Disposal Progam, October 2005 - pdf)

•  Q: What are the different options for shipbreaking? Although the US once had numerous domestic shipbreaking firms there are now only six in the U.S. , four on the Gulf Coast at Brownsville, TX and two on the East Coast in Chesapeake Bay. There are no shipbreaking outfits on the West Coast. Firms contend that dismantling the CA fleet on site is too costly.

•  Q: What kinds of organisms are attached to the ships' hulls? Fouling organisms, those species that attach to the hulls of ships, are sessile bottom-dwelling invertebrates, algae, and micro-organisms such as bacteria and diatoms. Fouling communities may include barnacles, bivalves, bryozoans, tunicates and seaweeds - organisms similar to those commonly found on dock pilings. In addition, certain mobile species such as crustaceans, sea stars and worms may also be associated with hulls. Although not attached, they may live within the matrix of the fouling community or inhabit protected nooks and crannies such as sea chests. Fouling communities may contain both native and non-native species. The exact identity of the species attached to the mothball fleet can only be determined by surveying the hulls of the vessels. Generally, fouling communities in freshwater (Suisun Bay is the most upstream portion of the greater San Francisco Bay) are less species rich and have lower biomass than those in estuarine and marine waters.

•  Q: What is the risk of them establishing in Oregon? The risk of establishment is unknown and requires detailed study of the vessel hulls in question. However, these ships have been laid-up in Suisun Bay, CA for many years, so the hulls are expected to have an extensive fouling community on them. The risk of establishment of non-native fouling organisms depends on the type of organisms, their tolerances during transit (to factors such as salinity), the suitability of the receiving waters in Oregon, and their reproductive cycle. It is also important to know if non-native species on the hulls are already present in Oregon waters when determining risk.


•  Q: If they do establish, what are the possible economic impacts and ecological impacts? As with many non-native species, predicting the impacts of species after establishment is very difficult. Usually, if the organism has a history of invasiveness elsewhere, some determination of impact can be made. Until we know which species are involved, very little can be predicted about possible impacts or even likelihood of establishment.

•  Q: What mitigation methods are available to reduce the risks? Preventing new introductions is the most cost effective means of limiting invasive species impacts. The first step in assessing risk reduction is to determine the effect of the ship's journey on organism quantity and quality. The risks may be low if the fouling community sloughs off during transit or fails to survive the journey. Mitigation options include towing vessels between freshwater and saltwater for extended periods. The Columbia River was used for this purpose when the USS MISSOURI was moved to Hawaii from Puget Sound (although this was not 100% successful). Other options include in-water cleaning of the hulls (this is unlikely to be carried out because of expense and risks with contamination from paint/rust on the hulls) and dismantling ships in a dry-dock facility.

•  Q: Which agencies, if any, have authority to regulate invasive species associated with derelict ships? In terms of ship movements and invasive species, the U.S. Coast Guard has authority at the federal level and MARAD is responsible for the vessels in the reserve fleet. In Oregon , the Department of Fish and Wildlife ha s authority under the Wildlife Integrity Rules ( OAR 635-056-0000 to 0150) to place imported wildlife species into three categories: prohibited, controlled and non-controlled. Included in all three groups are mollusks, crustaceans and fish species that may or may not be associated with these ships.

•  Q: Who are the experts on this issue? The Aquatic Bioinvasions Research and Policy Institute (ABRPI), a joint effort of Portland State University and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, has been conducting research on vessel fouling and the transfer of organisms for a number of years. ABRPI has also worked with MARAD on this issue. Numerous other researchers throughout the U.S. and elsewhere are studying aquatic invasive species and their impacts.

•  Q: What about other vessels? Can different types of ships present different risk scenarios in terms of invasive species? Numerous factors contribute to the invasive species risk level associated with ANY vessel arriving to a dock. The vast majority of vessels carry a very low risk because they are well maintained and not heavily fouled. The reason the mothball vessels are a focus of concern is because they have spent an extraordinarily long time laid-up compared to regular ships, and they are in an estuary known to have a high number of non-native species. As a consequence, their hulls are likely to be heavily fouled and this community may include non-native species of concern. If other vessels were to be included in the ship breaking process, the risk associated with them would depend on how long they were laid-up, when they were last cleaned, where they are arriving from, where they are being dismantled, etc. For example, a ship arriving from the Gulf Coast (to Oregon) that was laid-up for 5 years in a marine port poses a much higher risk of bringing non-native species to Oregon than one from a nearby West Coast port that was laid up for a short period.

•  Q: Where can I get more information?

Websites related to the reserve fleet:

US Maritime Administration


Federation of American Scientists

Scientific literature on invasive species and hullfouling:

- Carlton and Hodder (1995) Biogeography and dispersal of coastal marine organisms. Marine Biology 121:721-730; [abstract]

- Brock, et al. (1999) A case study of efficacy of freshwater immersion in controlling introduction of alien marine fouling communities: the USS Missouri. Pacific Science 53: 223-231; [abstract]

- Godwin (2003) Hull fouling of maritime vessels as a pathway for marine species invasions to the Hawaiian Islands. Biofouling 19 (Supplement): 123-131. [word document ]

Other Resources and Links

Disclaimer: these links are provided for your convenience and are not meant to imply that opinions, policies and analyses proffered by these websites are shared by the ABRPI, CLR or PSU.

OSHA Shipbreaking factsheet [.pdf]

The Shipbreakers: Pulitzer Prize winning series from the Baltimore Sun

Invasive Species in Fouling - 11th International Congress on Marine Corrosion and Biofouling

"N.I.M.B.Y. Syndrome and the Ticking Time Bomb: Disputes over the Dismantling of Naval Obsolete Vessels" by Morita, Takako for Georgetown Law Review 2005

"End of the Line" photoessay by Brendan Corr, Foreign Policy Magazine 2006