More than $375 billion in cargo — iron ore, coal, cement, stone, grain and more — has flowed between Great Lakes ports and foreign nations since 1959. That is when Queen Elizabeth and U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower christened the St. Lawrence Seaway, heralding it as an engineering marvel.

But that series of locks, dams and channels connecting the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean also carved a pathway for foreign plants and animals to wreak billions of dollars in ecological damage to the lakes.

At least 80 invasive species have arrived in the ballast water that transatlantic ships take in and discharge for balance.

The round goby, which came from the Black and Caspian seas in the 1990s, gobbles up food some native fish depend upon. So do European zebra and quagga mussels, which also damage docks and boats and clog pipes and machinery, costing the Great Lakes region an estimated $500 million each year.

More than 20 years of federal and state efforts to regulate ballast water have slowed the introduction of new species to the Great Lakes. But those regulations exempt “lakers” — hulking freighters traveling exclusively within the Great Lakes — and researchers say that helps invasive species spread after they arrive.

Lakers can hold up to 16 million gallons of ballast water. The water helps ships maintain balance by dumping or replacing it as they deliver or take on cargo.

“You would expect these ships to move invasive species, and that’s what our research shows,” said Allegra Cangelosi, a Great Lakes ballast water expert and senior researcher at Penn State University-Behrend.

Canadian regulators want the country’s 80 lakers to treat ballast water by 2024, and environmentalists are pushing for similar rules for the roughly 50 freighters that fly a U.S. flag. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to develop new standards by December 2020, and the Coast Guard plans to draft implementation rules two years after.

But industry groups argue researchers have not proved lakers move invasive species, and new regulations would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and grind business to a halt. Lakers handle about half of the $15 billion in cargo that moves around the Great Lakes each year.

For now, no treatment system cost-effectively kills unwanted organisms in laker ballast water, but scientists are racing to find a solution — and test it — before regulators finalize the new rules.

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