The Death and Life of the Great Lakes
Loop North News


(Above) Crisp Point Lighthouse watches over Lake Superior near Whitefish Point on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. (Click on images to view larger versions.)

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan is the perfect book that will answer questions about these mystical, aquatic wonders.

21-Jul-19 – The gem that makes Chicago’s North Side sparkle is our lake, which many call a crystal-clear blue inland sea – a vast body of fresh water that wraps along our pristine shoreline. But what do we know about Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario? What makes them precious? What changes have they experienced? What challenges do they face?

W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

“A Great Lake can swallow freighters almost three times the length of a football field; the lakes’ bottoms are littered with an estimated 6,000 shipwrecks, many of which have never been found,” writes Dan Egan, author of The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. “This would never happen on a normal lake, because a normal lake is knowable. A Great Lake can hold all the mysteries of an ocean, and then some.”

The Great Lakes are the largest source of fresh surface water in the world, accounting for 20 percent of the world’s fresh water, yet it has been under constant threat after it opened via the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic Ocean – making the Great Lakes a bustling international seaport but allowing saltwater species to invade like a virus, destroying native fish and plant populations.

The zebra mussel and quagga mussel from the Caspian Sea hitched rides on the freighters, and with no worthy adversaries, turned our Great Lakes into some of the clearest freshwater on the planet.

“This nearly vodka-clear water is not the sign of a healthy lake,” writes Egan (right), “it’s the sign of one in which the bottom of the food web is collapsing.”

Photo by Mike De Sisti

Egan is a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist who worked for more than a decade on this book, covering the Great Lakes for the newspaper and researching the subject extensively. He is a masterful storyteller who draws you into the book, telling a series of tales about the wonders of our Great Lakes and the people on the firing line.

St. Lawrence Seaway connects Midwest to Atlantic Ocean

He begins with the story of the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, a project that connected the Atlantic Ocean to the Midwest and allows giant freighters to steam from the East Coast into the five massive freshwater inland seas. Except, that dream project, completed in 1959, writes Egan, “in some respects borders on a nightmare.”

Photo by Steven Dahlman

The locks were never wide enough to allow a constant flow of massive ships, and today cargo typically accounts for about five percent or less of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway shipping industry.

A congressman told Egan they built the canal too small because the railroads did not want larger locks to compete with them, and so they worked with East Coast ports – who also didn’t need the competition – to limit the size of the Seaway locks.

(Left) Port on St. Lawrence River in Montreal.

Worse still, a single Seaway ship can hold up to six million gallons of vessel-steadying ballast water that gets discharged at a port in exchange for cargo. That water contains millions, if not billions, of living organisms that could contain invasive species detrimental to the Great Lakes ecology. The Great Lakes is home to its own local species such as the giant sturgeon, which can live more than 100 years and grow to seven feet, and giant trout that can grow to “wolf-sized 70 pounds.” They had no natural predators and thus sustained a vibrant fishing industry.

In the 1940s about 100 million pounds of Great Lakes fish were being harvested each year, but then suddenly the lake trout as well as whitefish vanished due to an invasive species called the lamprey. It was like a vampire, attaching to a fish and sucking the life out of it. The lamprey looks like a giant tadpole and somehow it managed to survive four of the earth’s five mass extinctions. Thanks to the newly constructed seaway, this saltwater razor-toothed predator was like Columbus and his crew landing in American waters and feeding on a native population that had lived here for thousands of years. Suddenly those fish were threatened with extinction.

Egan’s story about the lamprey and how it was finally destroyed reads like a mystery novel. He tells of biologist Vernon Applegate (right), who should have a statute erected along the Great Lakes for the work he did to learn everything about this little-known creature and eventually help eradicate the vile vampire from our precious freshwaters – and restore the lake trout.

Vernon Applegate

The next invasive Atlantic organism was the alewife, known as the cockroach-of-the-inland-seas, which could be turned into cat food or liquid fertilizer. In 1967, three of the five Great Lakes – Huron, Michigan, and Ontario – were overrun by this rapidly reproducing species. Egan tells the story of Howard Tanner, who introduced Coho and Chinook Salmon into the Great Lakes to feast on the alewives. The salmon, imported from the Pacific Northwest, would be declared off-limits to commercial fishermen and grocery shoppers but open to fishing sportsmen, “a program that would prove to be a boon for tourism but also, ultimately, an obstacle in efforts to restore some semblance of natural order to the lakes in the decades after the lamprey infestation.”

However, in the late 1980s and early 1990s the salmon crashed because they began breeding at unsustainable numbers and there were simply too many Chinook Salmon mouths and not enough alewife tails. Alewife numbers started to plummet around 2003. The alewives also ran out of food due to an unexpected plummet in plankton tied to the surge of yet another invasive species, the exotic mussels on the lake bottom.

“People might think of Lake Michigan as an inland sea full of fish,” Egan writes. “It’s more accurate to think of it as an exotic mussel bed sprawling across thousands of square miles.”

Cheaper to keep lakes clean

Egan writes that governmental regulation of our waters is crucial. In the early 1970s, two-thirds of America’s lakes, rivers, and coastal waters were unsafe for fishing or swimming, but in 2014 it was reduced to one-third by the Clean Water Act.

The overall cost to cities and industry trying to keep pipes mussel-free over the last 25 years is $1.5 billion, while the damage to fisheries and other recreational activities caused by mussel invasions is about $200 million annually. In 2008, United States operators of the Seaway began requiring all overseas vessels bound for the Great Lakes to flush their ballast tanks with mid-ocean saltwater – and ever since, no new exotic organisms have been found in the Great Lakes.

In Part II of the book, Back Door, Egan writes how Lake Michigan was opened to the Gulf of Mexico via construction of the Chicago Ship & Sanitary Canal, which allows Chicago’s sewage to run west away from the lake and down the Mississippi River. The canal opened the door to the feared Asian carp, which has decimated the southern United States and sent the zebra and quagga mussels out into the vast network of tributaries, unleashing ecological havoc.

So far, the battle to keep carp out of Lake Michigan with an electric barrier has been successful, but this feared invasive fish has been sighted on the Chicago River only blocks from the lake.

The problem is Bighead and Silver Carp don’t just invade ecosystems. They conquer them. They don’t gobble up their competition. They starve it out by stripping away the plankton upon which every other fish species directly or indirectly depends. Bighead carp can grow larger than 100 pounds and each day consume up to 20 pounds of plankton. Bighead and Silver Carp have so squeezed aside native species that the Asian carp biomass in some stretches of rivers in the Mississippi basin is thought to be more than 90 percent – the same dire situation that an alewife-plagued Lake Michigan suffered in the 1960s.

Egan then details the mussel infestation in the West by way of the Ship & Sanitary Canal superhighway that Chicago accidentally built for the invasive species to fan out across North America, which will cost the West hundreds of millions of dollars. Some Western states even made it illegal to transport these exotic mussels across state lines.

“In many ways, Midwesterners have learned to live with the scourge,” Egan writes. “They’ve grown accustomed to higher utility bills and to wearing shoes while swimming. They’ve become numb to buying exotic farm-raised tilapia and salmon instead of local lake fish at grocery stores and restaurants.”

Those who fish can still eat the fresh fish they catch, but the fish around Chicagoland cannot be sold commercially. Fish harvested farther north near upper Wisconsin can be sold.

The last part of the book is focused on the nitty-gritty water business, where states battle over demarcation lines for access to the fresh lake water, what needs to be done to prevent the massive outbreaks of toxic algae stemming from the over-application of farm fertilizer, and the increasing fluctuations in water levels.

Photo by Steven Dahlman

The end of the book is not as exciting as the beginning and middle, but it is filled with important information that people living in Chicago and anywhere near the Great Lakes should know.

(Left) Boats docked in DuSable Harbor with Lake Michigan in distance.

Only three percent of the water on our planet is fresh water, and of that, most is locked in polar ice caps or trapped too far underground. Our Great Lakes, which were carved during the last ice age, constantly drain into the Atlantic and refill with precipitation and runoff from the rivers that feed them. Surveys show three-quarters of Americans don’t know where their water comes from. Chicago draws about two billion gallons of water from Lake Michigan every day.

Is there hope for the future of our Great Lakes? Much to the amazement of biologists, the lake’s native fish species surged immediately after the alewives disappeared. And today, lake trout are again successfully breeding in the wild. Mother Nature does indeed find a way.

Egan writes that the “front door” to Great Lakes invasions can be shut by forcing ships sailing up the Seaway to transfer their cargo to local ships or railroad lines. Only 455 overseas ships sailed into the Great Lakes in 2015.

The question of whether our Great Lakes should be managed to maximize sport and commercial fishing, or just resuscitate any and all native species, is perhaps best answered by Wisconsin naturalist Aldo Leopard who wrote in 1949, “A thing is right when it tends to promote the integrity, beauty, and stability of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Photos by Steven Dahlman, Mike De Sisti, and Paul Lemke.

By Jim Vail | Loop North News |

Published 21-Jul-19 11:36 PM

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