Invasive species and global trade: Finding the connections

Discover how environmental issues are rooted in our global interactions.

When cargo ships are not carrying any goods they take on ballast water to ensure safe operating conditions. Michigan Sea Grant

When cargo ships are not carrying any goods they take on ballast water to ensure safe operating conditions. Michigan Sea Grant

Editor’s Note: This article is Part Two of a four-part series seeking to bring new scientific concepts to the public to inform policy discussions about future and current issues. James Roche is a Glassen Scholar working with the Michigan Sea Grant Extension Program. He also is a James Madison Student majoring in Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy, and is a member of the Science, Technology, and Environmental Public Policy Specialization conducted jointly by James Madison College and Lyman Briggs College. This article should be cited as: Roche, J. and Triezenberg, H.A. 2015. Invasive Species and Global Trade: Finding the Connections. Michigan State University Extension/Michigan Sea Grant.

Invasive species are defined as an organism that is not native and has negative effects on our economy, environment, or health. They are one of the biggest problems we face in the Great Lakes. In order to maintain healthy and ecologically sound ecosystems, it is important to understand how these disruptive species found their way into the environment so we can prevent future introductions of even more troublesome species. Currently there are more than 180 Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS)  within the Great Lakes including algae, fish, invertebrates, and plants. (Science, W., & Board, T. 2008) A large number of these invasive species were introduced accidentally by the shipping industry through the St. Lawrence Seaway, which opened in 1959, and because of unregulated ballast water.

Ballast water is salt or fresh water that shipping vessels pump into large onboard tanks in order to weigh down and balance the ship, allowing it to ride low in the water to prevent capsizing and turbulent journeys. When cargo ships are not carrying any goods they take on ballast water to ensure safe operating conditions. (Ballast Water Defined 2010) Unregulated ballast water has been blamed for introducing 55 percent to 70 percent of the invasive species within the Great Lakes, the majority of which have come from Eurasia. (Science, W., & Board, T. 2008) Of all the AIS that have been brought into the Great Lakes by ballast water, zebra mussels are arguably the most disruptive and widespread species. Discovered in 1988 in Lake St. Clair by a University of Windsor researcher, zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha)  have spread to all of the Great Lakes, and have been found as far south as Louisiana and as far west as California. (Invasive Mussels 2015) Using the concept known as telecoupling, as discussed in my previous article, we can better understand how the introduction of zebra mussels was influenced by global socioeconomic and environmental systems. With this information we may be able to prevent future invasive species both aquatic and terrestrial from impacting the world’s ecosystems.

Where did ships coming into the Great Lakes region with ballast water come from and what where they transporting? Answers to these questions can help explain the introduction of zebra mussels with the help of the telecoupling framework.

In the telecoupling framework the Soviet Union acts as the sending system for ballast water into the Great Lakes because of its need for U.S. grain. On April 24th, 1981, newly elected President Ronald Reagan lifted the grain embargo originally imposed on the Soviet Union by former President Jimmy Carter due to Soviet aggression in Afghanistan. (Weisman 1981) Two years later President Reagan signed off on the Second Long-Term Bilateral Grain Agreement, the first one occurring more than a decade earlier, which required the Soviet Union to buy nine million metric tons (mmt) of grain each year that the agreement was in effect. During the five years the deal was in effect the U.S. exported 23.6 mmt of wheat and 36.1 mmt of corn to the Soviet Union with large quantities of that grain being grown in the Midwest and exported via ports in the Great Lakes. (Agricultural trade 1989) Russia was in need of a reliable grain supply because the collectivized economy had recently raised large herds of cattle to fulfill its country’s demand for meat, and a series of harsh winters and hot summers had made domestic grain production lower than expected. (Keller, B. 1984) These local Soviet problems were caused by the inability of socioeconomic and natural systems to support one another sustainably resulting in the need for long distance trade interactions with the U.S. Once the trade deal was underway Russia began sending ships to the U.S. laden with ballast water as the Soviets had few goods the U.S. wanted in exchange for the grain. This ballast water was in most cases taken on while the ships were docked within the Soviet ports inside the Black and Caspian Seas. (Keller, R. 2009) The cargo ships then flowed to the receiving system in the Great Lakes through the St. Lawrence Seaway bringing non-native species and money for the crops.

It is presumed that once the Russian shipping vessels entered the Great Lakes region they dumped their ballast water in order to navigate the shallow waters of Lake St. Clair and connecting rivers to visit multiple ports in the Great Lakes region and take on grain cargo. Inside this ballast water a whole host of non-native species survived the transoceanic journey, and found a new home in the Great Lakes. What allowed the U.S., and particularly the Midwest, to sell such large quantities of grain to Russia was a reliable grain production amount due to favorable environmental conditions. International competitors had suffered similar weather problems that the Soviet producers had experienced. (Keller, B. 1984)  U.S. grain producers also had a surplus of product during this time because a strong dollar value had driven the price of U.S. grain up making it less temping to other nations outside of the trade deal. The Soviet grain sales also served to cement Reagan’s and many other Republican’s political positions with the farm vote. By establishing continuous high volume trade with the Soviets many farmers, who had previously vilified former President Carter, rejoiced at the new trade deal and cast their vote for Reagan in the 1984 election, which he handily won. (Keller, B. 1984) The environmental systems that allowed the U.S. to produce grain as such large and reliable quantities, coupled with the socioeconomic systems that combined the farmers demand for the sale of their product and the current administration’s need for a reliable voting base facilitated the creation of the U.S. Soviet grain sales. The interactions of these systems inevitably caused the spillover effect of zebra mussel introduction to the other Great Lakes, and have now resulted in the westward and southern expansion of these mussels into our waters in North America.

Using the telecoupling framework to examine global interactions we can better understand how the introduction of zebra mussels into the Great Lakes region was related to international commerce and trade agreements, and food shortages due to environmental conditions in the Soviet Union, economic benefits for grain producers in the Midwest and political gains. Telecoupling shows the sustainability issues the world faces have roots in a multitude of different fields and are interconnected.

In the next article in this series, we’ll examine the impact of the zebra mussels in the Great Lakes region within the spillover system of the telecoupling framework.

Read the article series:

Part One: Using telecoupling framework helps promote sustainability in global trade

Part Two: Invasive species and global trade: Finding the connections

Part Three: Telecoupling and the spillover system: Causes and effects of zebra mussels in the Great Lakes

Part Four: Telecoupling helps us understand our disconnected seafood trade


Agricultural trade: Long-term bilateral grain agreements with the Soviet Union and China. (1989). Washington, D.C.: GAO.

Ballast Water Defined. (2010, January, 21). Retrieved July 7, 2015, from

Invasive Mussels. (n.d.). Retrieved July 13, 2015, from

Keller, B. (1984, September 9). Reagan’s Russian Grain Harvest. The New York Times. Retrieved July 13, 2015, from

Keller, R. (2009). Bioeconomics of invasive species integrating ecology, economics, policy, and management (pp. 209-215). Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Science, W., & Board, T. (2008). Great Lakes Shipping, Trade, and Aquatic Invasive Species Special Report 291 (p. 43-62). Washington D.C., District of Columbia: [s.n.].

Weisman, S. (1981, April 24). REAGAN ENDS CURBS ON EXPORT OF GRAIN TO THE SOVIET UNION Office. Retrieved July 7, 2015.

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