More than 90% of global trade commodities are transported by huge cargo ships. Seaports are the initial point-of-entry for imported commodities including timber and food. Commodities that need to be kept cool are transported in air-tight refrigerated shipping containers built with climate controls and a condenser system that includes air-intake grilles. As these grilles take in air, they create a vacuum that can suck up plant seeds, insects, and other debris at the farm or port-of-origin, from the ocean, or at seaport stops along the way.
Biological invasions by nonnative organisms can detrimentally impact the environment and the economy of the nation. USDA Forest Service researchers partnered with the U.S. Customs & Border Protection, Agriculture Program (Dept. of Homeland Security), other state and federal agencies, and the Georgia Ports Authority at the Port of Savannah to examine if the plant community on-site differed greatly from nearby sites due to escaping nonnative seeds and continual heavy-equipment disturbance. The team collected debris, including seeds, from the air-intake grilles of refrigerated shipping containers and found that the greenspaces on-site at the Garden City Terminal, the Port of Savannah's container-handling facility, were significantly different from other local plant inventories, with significantly higher numbers of nonnative plant species present. From the debris vacuumed from refrigerated shipping containers, four monocot species were found to pose the greatest risk of establishment at the Garden City Terminal, even with extremely low escape rates. The collected seeds were viable, though viability rates varied.