Michigan State University Extension: Causes and effects of zebra mussels in the Great Lakes

[USA] Zebra mussels have been a nuisance in the Great Lakes ever since their discovery in Lake St. Clair in 1988. The introduction of zebra mussels was possibly caused by the interactions between the sending and receiving systems that operated during the Soviet grain trade in the 1980s. By 1990, only two years after their detection, zebra mussels had spread to all five of the Great Lakes and began to make their way inland (Benson et al. 2015). By 2007, 225 inland Michigan lakes had confirmed zebra mussel populations.

Currently zebra mussels can be found in the United States as far east as Massachusetts, as far south as Louisiana, and have even spread to fresh water bodies in California (Benson et al. 2015). While the initial introduction of zebra mussels was facilitated by unregulated ballast water release in the Great Lakes, recreational boaters have played a key role in the subsequent spread of zebra mussels to non-connecting inland lakes when boats are transported to inland water without proper cleaning (Snyder 1990).

The socioeconomic and environmental effects of zebra mussels are a result of three natural functions as a species: their ability to filter vast quantities of water quickly, the ability to attach themselves to almost anything, and the fact they reproduce at such alarming rates.

The ability of zebra mussels to attach onto a variety of surfaces means that they are able to blanket large portions of the lake floor and also disrupt water intake and outtake pipes at factories, power plants, irrigation systems and boats by inhabiting and eventually restricting the flow or completely blocking water pipes. It is estimated that zebra mussel cleanup cost between $1 billion and $1.5 billion from 1989 to 2004, other reports put the damage as high as $5 billion (Science, W., & Board, T. 2008).

Zebra mussels also interact with our socioeconomic and natural systems by exacerbating existing problems. The algal blooms that continue to plague Lake Erie and Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay are linked to excessive phosphorous use by local farmers. Mycrocystis and other blue-green algae blooms have been detected in these areas since the early 1990s and have impacted drinking water quality. As recently as August 2014, a Mycrocystis bloom made the water from Lake Erie undrinkable for more than 400,000 people in Michigan and Ohio (Lynch 2015).

zebra mussels


Zebra mussels aggravate algal blooms by selectively filtering the water in Lake Erie and Saginaw Bay. The zebra mussels in these bodies of water will not filter the toxic Mycrocystis and other blue-green algae, but will instead filter other non-toxic types that naturally compete with the toxic algae poisoning the water supply. Not only do the mussels selectively filter away from the toxic algae, they fertilize its growth by excreting nutrients from the consumption of the other algal types further worsening the problem. These algal blooms also impact the fishing industry and the very ecosystem of the lakes by creating an anoxia (low oxygen concentration) in the lakes killing fish and other animals (Vanderploeg 2002). The interaction of the zebra mussel with the environmental and socioeconomic systems of the Great Lakes leads to impacts that affect almost every facet of life in the region.

While the introduction of zebra mussels to the Great Lakes may have been a direct result of the Soviet grain trade that took place in the 1980s, its effects have been far reaching and have impacted the environmental and socioeconomic systems in the Great Lakes in ways no one could have predicted. By applying the telecoupling framework to examine the possible unintended consequences and spillover systems that may result from our interactions we can create a more sustainable world.


View original article at: Telecoupling and the spillover system: Causes and effects of zebra mussels in the Great Lakes

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