Harmful Microbes and the Great Lakes

The Northeast-Midwest Institute (NEMWI) and its partners are working to understand how to prevent the next harmful microbe from entering the Great Lakes. In the wake of the Great Lakes outbreak of the fish pathogen Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia (VHS), there was concern the virus could spread via ships’ ballast water. The Northeast-Midwest Institute (NEMWI) led a team of experts from academia and government to investigate whether the tiniest of organisms merit concern, and, if so, the best approaches to management and monitoring, through a project entitled “Harmful Microbes in Ballast Water and the Great Lakes.” This project determined a solid need for management and monitoring, and developed a cost-effective early-detection monitoring system for ship-mediated harmful microbes in the Great Lakes. Now, NEMWI is developing a project with the Universities of Wisconsin-Superior and Minnesota-Duluth, to investigate whether routine assessments of human pathogen indicators can inform regulators of the extent to which ballast water management systems (BWMS) are effective against non-conventional harmful microbes, like fish pathogens.

Current Activities:

Recent Activities

  • Conducted qualitative assessments of the ways pathogens enter the Great Lakes including rankings, and likelihood of occurrence; showing that untreated ballast water is a principal pathway;
  • Determined empirically that there are differences in the microbial communities in Great Lakes harbors and ship ballast water, such that new microbial introductions could alter the Great Lakes ecosystem;
  • Described and demonstrated the feasibility of rapid, low cost, and meaningful monitoring for multiple microbial invaders using site targeting and genetic detection tools;
  • Developed a relatively low cost and scientifically valid ship discharge monitoring system for collecting ballast uptake and discharge samples from Great Lakes ships for microbial (and other live organism) analysis; and
  • Showed that early detection monitoring could reduce unnecessary interruptions to shipping and unnecessary impacts to the Great Lakes environment.

Upcoming Activities

If funded, NEMWI will:

  • Collect ballast water from ships plying the Great Lakes and foreign ports;
  • Conduct experiments to determine the extent to which the response of the human pathogen indicators reflects response of non-conventional pathogens to the UV will be compared.
  • Report results to states, federal and international policy-makers and in the published scientific literature

Accomplishments and Impacts:

The NEMWI and its partners are helping prepare the region for efficient and effective responses to the inevitable next introduction of a harmful microbe. Our interdisciplinary research shows that ships can carry harmful microscopic organisms, including pathogens, in their untreated ballast water, and that shipping and resource managers can benefit from developing early warning systems to ensure effective prevention and management of harmful microbes in the Great Lakes. Specific impacts include:

  • NEMWI and its partners helped establish that early detection and monitoring of ship-mediated harmful microbes in the Great Lakes is warranted, useful (from the standpoint of the ship owner as well as the resource manager) and feasible.
  • NEMWI and its partners laid out, in the report, Harmful Microbes in Ballast Water Final Report (2015), specific means by which early detection and monitoring could be best accomplished in the Great Lakes region.



From 2008-2013, the “Harmful Microbes in Ballast Water and the Great Lakes” project produced numerous policy-relevant technical reports and peer-reviewed scientific journal articles that helped resolve the controversy around Lake Superior and VHSV.


  • Harmful Microbes in Ballast Water Final Report (2015)
  • Harmful Microbes in Ballast Water: Protecting the Great Lakes Ecosystem. (2013)
  • A Ballast Discharge Monitoring System for Great Lakes Relevant Ships: A Guidebook for Researchers, Ship Owners and Agency Officials. (2011)

Peer-reviewed Scientific Journal Articles

  • Monitoring Microbes in the Great Lakes (2011). Bain MB, Cangelosi A & Eder TA. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment; 182(1-4):431-42. (Copies available on request)
  • Distribution of an Invasive Aquatic Pathogen (Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia Virus) in the Great Lakes and Its Relationship to Shipping (2010). Bain MB, Cornwell ER, Hope KM, Eckerlin GE, Casey RN, Groocock GH, Getchell RG, Bowser PR, Winton JR, Batts WN, Cangelosi A & Casey JW. PLoS ONE; 5(4): e10156. (Copies available on request)

Partners in Our Work:

Cornell University
Great Lakes Commission
Old Dominion University
University of Minnesota
United States Geological Survey (USGS)

Funders of Our Work:

Great Lakes Protection Fund