Zebra Mussels (and Lots of Other Species) Invading Great Lakes and No One Can Decide What to Do About It


Photo via benimoto via Flickr CC

Out of the 185 invasive species in and around the Great Lakes, zebra mussels are posing a painful problem. The mussels have sharp shells and a tendency to slice up the feet of beach-goers. The mussels have hitched rides in the ballasts of ships coming into port, and while politicians have tried to get the shipping industry to help curb the problem through regulations, there haven't been any successes. Well, unless you're looking at it from the perspective of zebra mussels. But with 15,000 lakes to worry about, standing around bickering about what to do isn't helping the situation. First discovered in the Great Lakes in 1988, the zebra mussels were carted into North America by being carried in the ballast water of a cargo vessel. They've since spread out to the fresh water ways of nineteen states and two Canadian provinces. They're problematic because, according to the Ecology Dictionary, they can "cause severe fouling of municipal drinking water, electric power generation, and industrial water systems; they are also harmful to aquatic ecosystems, boating and navigation, agricultural irrigation equipment, aquacultural equipment, and recreation beach use." Zebra mussels have also been linked to the deadly algae blooms hitting the news lately.

The problem goes beyond the ecosystems and into the real estate economy. And as Candy Dailey, a nurse whose feet recently had a bloody run in with zebra mussels, states, "Where is the fun in playing on the shoreline anymore if our lakes are wall-to-wall zebra mussels?" asks Dailey. "Look at the money that we all pay in property taxes to live on a lake that is now not the lake that it used to be."

The zebra mussels are already here, and already a problem. According to an article on PhysOrg, "Biologists say the damage being done to the world's largest freshwater system cannot be overstated, but the problem has become bigger than the Great Lakes themselves. It's now clear the failure to slam the door on new Great Lakes invasions has consequences for everyday folks with cottages on inland lakes..."

Consequences for thousands upon thousands of inland lakes sounds like an issue that requires swift action. But the problem isn't going to get any better with politicians and shipping industry officials butting heads about regulations on ballast water treatment as a way to prevent more invasive species from entering Great Lakes water systems. Shipping industry leaders have pushed against ideas for installing onboard ballast treatment systems, using the excuse that the systems and regulations are stringent, expensive or inconsistent from state to state.

Zebra Mussels Show Why Regulations are Needed, Yet Nothing is Happening

With no real regulations in place, not only is there the expensive problem of zebra mussels - as well as about 184 other invasive species and their impacts - to deal with, there is also the problem of future introduction of invasive species through ballast water discharging.

According to the article, "The only protection the Great Lakes has at the moment from contaminated ballast water is a requirement that overseas ships bound for the Great Lakes flush their ballast tanks with mid-ocean saltwater to expel or kill any unwanted hitchhikers. It is a practice scientists say goes a long way -- but not all the way -- to reducing the risk of future invasions."

With the shipping industry arguing that tighter regulations will cut into tax revenue and cost jobs, proposals that would go farther in eliminating future invasions are dead in the water.

More on Invasive Species
Invasive Species: When Small Creatures Do Big Damage
Green Glossary: Zebra Mussel
Survey: Would You Eat Invasive Species?
The World's Most Lovable Invasive Species (Slideshow)

Tags: Animals | Conservation | Great Lakes