Shipping, commerce and the introduction of non-native species in the Great Lakes

This article is Part One of a two-part series.

A cargo ship sails on one of the Great Lakes. Todd Marsee | Michigan Sea Grant
A cargo ship sails on one of the Great Lakes. Todd Marsee | Michigan Sea Grant

Editor’s Note: This article series is the result of a student engagement program through Michigan State University Extension and Michigan Sea Grant helping to prepare the next generation of natural resource professionals with practical experience in Extension outreach and engagement. This article is the first in a two-part series.

Non-native invasive species such as plants, fishes, algae and mollusks have been impacting the Great Lakes since the 1800s. Currently, there are over 180 non-native species established in the Great Lakes. Detailed information on these species is available in the Great Lakes Aquatic Nonindigenous Species (GLANSIS) information system, coordinated at the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab in collaboration with Michigan Sea Grant.

The Welland Canal, connecting Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, and the expansion of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959 facilitated Great Lakes-based commerce, as well as the introduction of non-native species. The Great Lakes are home to an active shipping industry in which more than 200 million tons of cargo is transported around the lakes and through the canals. The majority of the goods moved through the Great Lakes consist of iron, coal, and grain products (About Our Great Lakes: Economy). In 2011, the shipping industry generated more than $35 billion in revenue and employed more than 220,000 people (Economic Impact of Great Lakes Shipping). While the shipping industry has been facing some competition from rail and trucking industries it remains a vital part of the Great Lakes economy.

Ballast water from ships is a known source for non-native species, especially those that become invasive in freshwater aquatic systems. An iconic example of the introduction of non-native invasive species has been zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha) via the discharging of ballast water by cargo ships from Eurasia in the early to mid-1980s. The impacts of zebra mussels have been felt in the recreational, energy, drinking water, and fishing industries due to the zebra mussels ability to attach to hard surfaces, filter large quantities of water, and reproduce at alarming rates, and was recently estimated at more than $100 million annually (Rosaen et al. 2012).   

Viruses, too, can be non-native species and are transported in ballast water. Like many other plants, fishes and mollusks, viruses from other places around the globe can find their way to new waters via shipping vessels’ ballast tanks. Viral hemorrhagic septicemia virus (VHSV) originated in Europe in the 1930s and caused disease in trout. It was first found in the United States off the West coast in the late 1980s. In the early 2000s, the virus had spread and was found off the East coast of Canada. By 2005, VHSV was introduced to the Great Lakes via ballast water and impacted fish populations as many fish kills were observed in Lake St. Clair and Lakes Ontario and Erie as well as other bodies of water. Today, more than 25 fish species are susceptible to this virus, and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources continues to manage for VHSV to avoid environmental and economic consequences to Michigan’s fish populations and its surrounding industry – one that, in recent years, contributes over $2 billion to the state’s economy.

Recent changes in ballast water quality standards have been imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA), the International Maritime Organization (IMO), and the U.S. Coast Guard (U.S.C.G.) and are based on organism size classes. Since viruses may slip through size class standard regulations, California is developing a standard for viruses. Depending upon the size of the organism, there is a specific number limit that is allowed per a specific volume of water. According to the IMO Ballast Water Management Convention of 2004, ballast water must be treated to certain standards before it is released. As a result of the convention, new regulations will enter into force 12 months after ratification by 30 different countries and upon achieving consensus of those countries shipping at least 35 percent by weight of worldwide tonnage. Some suggest that these two thresholds will be met by early 2016 though this date is anything but certain. These regulations, once passed, require vessels to eventually install a ballast water treatment system.

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  • About Our Great Lakes: Economy. Retrieved August 10, 2015, from
  • Economic Impact of Great Lakes Shipping. Retrieved August 10, 2015, from
  • Kim, Y., Aw, T.G., Teal,T.K, and Rose, J.B. 2015. Metagenomic investigation of viral communities in ballast water. Environmental Science & Technology. 49 (14), pp 8396–8407.
  • Liu, J., Hull,V., Batistella,M., DeFries,R., Dietz, T., Fu, F., Hertel, T.W., Izaurralde, R.C., Lambin, E.F., Li, S., Martinelli, L.A., McConnell, W.J., Moran, E.F., Naylor, R., Ouyang, Z., Polenske, K.R., Reenberg, A., de Miranda Rocha, G., Simmons, C.S., Verburg, P.H., Vitousek, P.M., Zhang, F., and Zhu, C. 2013. Framing sustainability in a telecoupled world. Ecology and Society 18(2): 26. ES-05873-180226
  • Mills, E.L., Leach, J.H., Carlton, J.T., Secor, C.L. 1993. Exotic species in the Great Lakes: A history of biotic crises and anthropogenic introductions. Journal of Great Lakes Research. 19(1):1-54.
  • Rosaen, A. L., E. A. Grover, C. W. Spencer, with P. L. Anderson. 2012. The costs of aquatic invasive species to Great Lakes States. Report by the Anderson Economic Group, LLC, East Lansing, MI.

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