Mackinac Bridge: Meeting of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron

Mackinac Bridge: Meeting of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron
photo © Billau


Is it possible to put a price tag on the value of the Great Lakes? These five lakes – Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, and Lake Superior – border eight states and one Canadian province: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ontario. The lakes provide drinking water to more than 30 million Americans. The economic impact of their commercial and sport fishing industries is estimated at $7 billion. The Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway handle more than 200 million net tons of cargo annually, supporting more than 150,000 jobs. The Great Lakes are home to more than four million registered boats in the United States and an additional one million registered boats in Canada; these recreational boaters spend more than $2 billion annually on their sport. Tourism brings in an estimated $40 billion annually to the Great Lakes region! With staggering numbers like these, we cannot take for granted the future ecological health of these beautiful waters.

Palisades Cliffs, Lake Superior

Palisades Cliffs, Lake Superior
photo © bhs 128


Before the arrival of European settlers in the 16th century, the native inhabitants of the Great Lakes found abundant game and fish, fertile soils and plentiful water for agriculture, and transportation for trade. The Europeans began their exploration of the Great Lakes in their search for a short-cut passage to the Orient. The British and French fought for military control over the Great Lakes during the 18th century which ended with the British capture of Quebec in 1759. The final military challenge for the wealth of the Great Lakes was the War of 1812 between the British and the Americans, with both sides claiming victory. The next 150 years saw rapid development of the Great Lakes basin with Canada and the United States concentrating on nation building, city building, and industrialization. Industrial pollution of these precious waterways resulted from rapid urbanization and industrial growth.


A different kind of battle is brewing today in the Great Lakes.

Lake Erie Colorful Sailboats

Lake Erie Colorful Sailboats
photo © Darren and Brad


Asian Carp pose a significant threat to the Great Lakes due to their immense size (up to 100 pounds), rapid rate of reproduction, and rapacious appetites. How did this invasive species get so close to the Great Lakes? During the 1970s, catfish farmers imported the carp to remove algae and suspended matter from their ponds. When catfish ponds flooded in the 1990s, Asian Carp were released into waterways in the Mississippi River basin. They reproduced rapidly and have steadily worked their way northward up the Mississippi toward the Great Lakes. They threaten the Great Lakes ecosystem by consuming up to 40% of their body weight daily, endangering the food chain that supports native fish. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in cooperation with other agencies, installed a permanent electric barrier on the Chicago Ship Canal which connects the Mississippi River to the Great Lakes via the Illinois River. However, five states (Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, and Pennsylvania) filed a lawsuit against federal agencies, claiming that comprehensive efforts have not been undertaken to prevent these invasive non-native species from invading the Great Lakes. The Supreme Court has refused to intervene, so it’s up to federal and state governments to prevent the carp from damaging the ecosystem. This month, the White House appointed John Goss as “Asian carp czar” to stop the fish from invading the Great Lakes.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Lake Michigan

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Lake Michigan
photo © anneh632


Another invasive species also threatens the ecosystem of the Great Lakes. A mussel species called the quagga was introduced into Lake Michigan by ocean-going vessels dumping ballast water. Lake Michigan is home to a giant ring of microscopic plants, called the “phytoplankton doughnut,” which is the beginning of the food chain that feeds the entire lake. The quagga’s favorite food – you guessed it – is phytoplankton. The quagga are devouring the phytoplankton, reducing the size of the “doughnut,” and threatening the future of Lake Michigan’s native fish. As a result, U.S. and Canadian policy now focuses on ballast water management to prevent the introduction and spread of invasive species such as quagga and zebra mussels. Although some government agencies are taking steps to preserve the ecological health of the Great Lakes, others are resisting.


Lakelubbers should all be good stewards of our precious natural resources. While we enjoy the waters, beaches and parklands today, let us be mindful to preserve them for future generations. Contact your representatives in government and let them know where you stand.

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