International shipping is vital to global trade, delivering 90 per cent worldwide. It is estimated that between five to 10 billion tonnes of ships’ ballast water is moved around the world globally – ballast water which has become inadvertent transport for invasive non-native species, harmful pathogens and antibacterial resistance.

A research team from Applied Genomics Limited, the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science, the Benthic Solutions Ltd and the University of Plymouth have secured funding from Innovate UK to develop the first early detection system to locate invasive non-native species and other harmful components of ships’ ballast water.

The basis of the system is a proactive approach to mitigating the threats posed by harmful organisms in ballast water, combining surveillance of the water and risk-based monitoring of local native biodiversity. Together the information acquired can be used to manage potential threats to human health and the environment.

The driving force behind the research is the imminent implementation of the International Maritime Organisation’s Ballast Water Management Regulations introduced this year, and an increasing awareness of the threats posed by the maritime transmission of invasive non-native species and microbial pathogens. Both have made the need for new approaches to monitor the contents of ballast water and their ecological impact even more critical.

After habitat loss, invasive non-native species are the second-greatest threat to biodiversity worldwide. The direct cost of marine invasive non-native species is estimated to be £40 million a year in the UK alone and more than €93 million across the EU. The impact of ballast water-borne pathogens to human health and local economies is immeasurable, both economically and socially.

Sebastian Mynott, Chief Operating Officer and Principal Molecular Ecologist at Applied Genomics Limited, commented: 

“We have put together the first monitoring system to deliver an evidence-based solution to monitoring ships’ ballast water to support domestic and international non-native species regulations. Most importantly, it is a system which delivers effective enforcement for managing introduced non-native species and limiting their spread. We are grateful to Innovate UK for this funding which will allow us to bring this system to markets where it is needed.”
Dr Mathew Upton, Associate Professor in Medical Microbiology at the University of Plymouth, added: 

“Greater international interconnectivity is good for global trade but it is the unwitting distribution method for not just non-native species, but also potentially deadly pathogens and antibiotic resistance. This new monitoring techniques we plan to develop will provide tools needed to better understand the impact of global ballast water movement on spread of drug resistant pathogens to mitigate the spread of unwanted organisms through ships’ ballast water, and give maritime and local authorities the information they need to avoid or curtail potential invasion.”