Home > Uncategorized > Zebra Mussels vs the Great Lakes

Zebra Mussels vs the Great Lakes

In 1988 a small unique looking mussel was discovered in Lake St. Claire by Detroit. This seemingly innocuous discovery would slowly rewrite the ecological face of the Great Lakes over the next twenty years as it gradually took over in a Darwinian struggle.

Spread of zebra mussels

Zebra mussels come from Eastern Europe, originally in the Caspian and Black Seas. Scientists speculate that mussel larvae latched onto transatlantic ships and were carried over in the ballast water. Female mussels lay between 30,000 and 10,000 eggs a year, making them virtually impossible to eradicate once introduced to an ecosystem.

From 1988 on the mussels have slowly invaded every one of the Great Lakes, and from there spread to the Illinois, the Mississippi, and the St. Lawrence rivers. Zebra mussels latch on to everything from industrial piping, to boats and docks, and even to other wildlife. The Center of Invasive Species Research estimates that the US spends roughly $500 million a year to control the zebra mussel population in the Great Lakes area. The state of Michigan has attempted to poison the mussels through chemicals, introduce natural predators of the zebra mussel, and dry them out through water draw downs in reservoirs and aqueducts. Unfortunately, they are still spreading and slowly pushing out competing species. According to Sea Grant Michigan, zebra mussels have appeared in 255 inland lakes and 17 rivers in Michigan.

Lake Lansing

Zebra mussels aren’t the only invasive species to threaten the Great Lakes. Asian carp are a large species of fish that can grow up to 100 pounds. The carp were brought to the US to keep algae populations down on fish farms in the south. They have quickly traveled up the Mississippi, and despite efforts to keep them out of the Great Lakes, the species has been found in Lake Michigan.

Michigan’s fishing industry brings in around $7 billion a year according to Senator Debbie Stabenow. Asian carp pose a potentially devastating threat to that industry. Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox has unsuccessfully sued the Supreme Court twice to close the locks on the Chicago waterways, and is considering a third effort.

Both the carp and the zebra mussels are not entirely without benefits. Asian carp are known to be a delicacy, if difficult to cook, and zebra mussels tend to leave infested waters far clearer than before they arrived. The mussels absorb most of the nutrients in the water, allowing sunlight to reach the bottom and new species of plants to thrive. Stabenow and Cox say it is not worth the cost.


Michigan Charter Boat Association

The Hill blog


National Atlas

Detroit Free Press


US Geological Survey

Center for Invasive Species Research

  1. Tamra Johnson
    July 17, 2010 at 10:19 am

    Adam, this is very interesting, and the photos where impressive. I’ve been reading a lot about the threat of the Asian Carp on the Great Lakes, but it seems people forget that there are other threats, because media tends to not cover them as much. Great job bringing light to that!

  2. July 25, 2010 at 6:02 pm

    Great article Adam. I’ve actually never heard about the Zebra Mussels threat, but have heard about the Asian Carp. This is really interesting and pertinent to everyone living near the Great Lakes. I hope that these threats don’t hurt the Great Lakes any further. We all know Michigan can’t really afford to do anything at the moment about it, but hopefully when the economy turns around this topic will get the attention it deserves.

  3. July 27, 2010 at 2:19 am

    Thanks guys. I actually lived on a lake with Zebra mussels for a long time. They can really be a pain, so the jump from disliking them for personal reasons, to environmental reasons was an easy one.

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