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Ten years after the Exxon Valdez disaster, Alaska's Prince William Sound faces another serious threat: four new species of plankton that could alter the ecosystem and "prove to be infinitely more devastating than [the] oil spill," said Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt last week in a talk at MIT.
Those plankton, which were released from ballast water brought by tankers from around the world, are a good example of the subject of Mr. Babbitt's talk: non-native species that are creating major economic and environmental problems in the sea.
At the First National Conference on Marine Bioinvasions, Mr. Babbitt outlined a counterattack against these intruders. He noted that within the next few weeks, President Clinton will issue an executive order addressing the problem.
"An executive order from the President saying 'get going' will, I think, have a major impact," he said.
That order will contain two broad initiatives, Mr. Babbitt said. First, it will require federal agencies to review their existing authorities to reduce the risk of bioinvaders. It will also create an interagency working group to draft a "truly comprehensive plan" for a coordinated response to the problem.
Mr. Babbitt emphasized that "the first, best and only line of defense against bioinvasion is to keep [these organisms] out in the first place... Not one marine bioinvasive species, after it has taken hold, has ever been eliminated or effectively contained...
"Our efforts must be focused primarily on prevention. And that, in turn, means effective regulation and enforcement."
Further research on control mechanisms is also necessary. "Research efforts right now are fragmented and directed at specific [organisms]," he said. "Somehow we've got to look across the scientific establishment [to] see if we can't find an organizing principle."
Mr. Babbitt also emphasized the importance of international cooperation toward solving the problem. "To have effective prevention controls, you ought to be working at both ends of the transportation pathways," he said.
The conference was hosted by the MIT Sea Grant College Program; Judith Pederson of MIT Sea Grant was conference chair. It was co-sponsored by the Oregon and Connecticut Sea Grant programs, the Massachusetts Environmental Trust, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Coast Guard, Battelle and others.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 3, 1999.