Oceanographic characteristics and the presence of international shipping in Puget Sound, Washington, USA contribute to its vulnerability to non-indigenous species (NIS) invasions. To evaluate NIS arriving in ballast water, zooplankton was sampled in 380 ballast tanks of ships after they entered Puget Sound. Taxa were classified into a higher risk group of coastal organisms (including known NIS), and a lower risk group of largely oceanic species. Most ships reported conducting mid-ocean ballast water exchange (BWE). However, despite state regulations requiring BWE, and apparent compliance by ship operators, most sampled tanks from both transpacific and coastal routes had coastal zooplankton densities exceeding internationally proposed discharge standards. BWE efficiency models and controlled before-and-after BWE experiments indicate that BWE consistently removes most coastal zooplankton. However, this study found that although the empty-refill method of BWE significantly reduced coastal plankton compared with un-exchanged tanks, the flow-through method did not, and in either case remaining coastal plankton densities presented appreciable risks of introducing NIS. Densities of high risk taxa were consistently and significantly higher from US domestic trips dominated by tank ships carrying ballast water from California, and lower in samples from trans-Pacific trips dominated by container ships and bulk carriers with ballast from Asia. These findings are probably a result of the dense and diverse NIS assemblages present in California and other US west coast estuaries and the comparatively short transit times between them and Puget Sound. While it appears that BWE can effectively replace NIS with less risky ocean species, new reporting, verification, and operational procedures may be necessary to enhance BWE efficacy. In the long-term, the introduction of ballast water treatment technologies may be required to significantly reduce the discharge of risky organisms from commercial ships if BWE practices do not become more effective. Copyright ?? 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.