Monday, June 26, 2017

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes

Dan Egan
I have lived my whole life by the Great Lakes, specifically Lake Michigan.  I love the vastness of these waters, like interior freshwater oceans.  I grew up visiting the beaches and now walk along the waterfront quite regularly; I live only a mile away from the shore.  So as soon as I heard about Dan Egan's book The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, I knew I would read it.  I don't think I realized just how depressing and stressful the book would be, though.  (That said, it ends on a semi-happy note!)

The Great Lakes were a bastion of glorious fresh water and bountiful fish for many, many years.  They were difficult to navigate, so they were mostly protected and allowed to grow and thrive as they wanted.  And then the St. Lawrence Seaway was built and things have been going downhill since then.

The lakes have been under attack by invasive species constantly since then.  The first attack by these really, really scary looking sea lampreys, which are basically blood-sucking eels that came from the Atlantic Ocean and attacked our poor, unsuspecting lake fish.  I do not recommend googling images of the sea lamprey because it is not something you'll be able to get out of your head any time soon.  It is ghastly and will likely show up in a nightmare.

Luckily, with some great work (that still continues to this day, at a cost), scientists were able to get the sea lamprey population way down by finding a poison that worked on them and only them.  BUT THEN, someone came back to Michigan from out west and was like, "What the Great Lakes need are sporting fish, not boring fish!" and so then he imported salmon to the lakes and then brought a bunch of species for those salmon to eat, and AGAIN the native fish populations dwindled.  (But recreation on the lakes SOARED into a very lucrative industry.)  And people were happy but the lakes were not really a great place.  AND THEN came the mussels, the true villains of our story (and the villains of lake stories all over the country, I think).  And they ate all the phytoplankton and starved out the salmon and the other fish, and there is NO GETTING RID OF THEM.  Really, I heard a Science Friday podcast with Dan Egan and some other scientists recently, and they were basically like, "Hopefully something will come and solve the mussel problem, but it's not likely to be humans."  Because there are just trillions of them.  If you were to drain the lakes, they would be full of these quagga mussels, cleaning the water and eating all the food and being complete menaces.

Also, asian carp has infested the Chicago River and is likely to already be in Lake Michigan and who knows what will happen then.

Suffice it to say, things do not look great for the Great Lakes.  Not only are there the many invasive species, but the lakes are bordered by eight different states, and two countries, and they have all these river tributaries, and people travel from the lakes to other parts of the countries, and the EPA seems to really not care that much about the lakes (to an appalling degree, really), and Chicagoans really want to keep taking from the lakes without giving a lot back, and the fishing industry really wants the salmon back, and other groups really want the trout and perch back, and it is very disheartening to read about.  Very important and fascinating, but fairly disheartening.  People can understand a forest fire or can see glaciers receding, but they don't care nearly as much about things happening underwater.  They don't understand just how different the lakes are now than they were 50 years ago, or 100 years ago.  There has been an incalculable loss to the whole world, and we seem not to notice.

Egan goes into excellent detail not only about the many rounds of invasive species in the lakes, but also about the people who depend on the lakes but also hurt them, the many government agencies that seem pretty ineffective in managing the lakes, and the people who are trying valiantly to help the lakes as much as they can.  I noted many quotes about the lakes that I was going to share in this post, but they are fairly sad and long, and I don't know if that's the best.

Instead, I'll leave you with the uplifting fact that Egan gave me at the end that made me feel a little better.  Native fish species in the lakes may be learning how to eat and digest the evil quagga mussels!  They never did before, and they were starving because the mussels ate all their food.  But now, since the mussels are so plentiful and the fish food is not at all plentiful, the fish are going after the mussels.  This is glorious.  I hope this continues and helps put the lakes in a little bit of a better balance.  Of course, this could all be of no help if more invasive species come in and wreak havoc on the system, or if we continue to pollute the lakes at the same rate that we do now.  But it's a story of resilience and adaptation and rooting for the underdog, and I think that's grand.

If you live by the Great Lakes, or any lake, I highly recommend reading this book!  If you enjoy books about environmental impact, or even if they cast you into despair, but you like to feel well-informed, I recommend this book to you, too.  I plan to do some research to see how I can help the lakes!  If only to go and clean up the beaches sometimes.

And if nothing else, I recommend a listen to the Science Friday podcast I linked to above!  It's excellent.


  1. Part of my getting involved in politics this winter involved learning more about environmental efforts for the great lakes, since my congressional representative always votes against them. It's mind-boggling how much I need to know in order to be able to resist effectively.

    1. I know! And it's hard to know what to focus on. I can only rest a little easier knowing that other people are fighting the good fight, too.

      But it's hard with the environmental stuff because it can just be one species that gets through a couple of times and causes a huge calamity all over again :-(

  2. What a sad read. It's very grim. I'm involved in some work around invasive species in a local river, and we're having good luck pulling these weeds--starting at the top of the river, every year the effort moves down just a little bit. We have to get every single one for about three years in a row, though, before any chunk of the river is called clear. It's a huge, long-term project and a tiny little river; thinking about anything on the scale of the Great Lakes is exhausting.

    1. I know, it's really overwhelming, isn't it? Especially if you solve one problem only to cause another. It must be quite disheartening.

      BUT I did hear some good news about river otters coming back to the Chicago River, where they have not been for a long time.

      So maybe the otters will eat asian carp?

  3. This all sounds familiar to this west-coaster too. Out here it's zebra mussels but yes, invasive species, problems from agricultural runoff, oil spills ... there are so many ways to harm our waters and most people don't think about it at all. I have a totally chemical-free yard. It doesn't look as nice as the person's down the street with the backpack sprayer of Roundup but at least I'm not harming the lake that is literally a block away. Every time I see any of these neighbors out spraying, I want to scream.
    Anyway, I'm now on the lookout for a book similar to this but about Puget Sound!


I read every comment posted on this blog, even if it sometimes takes me a while to respond. Thank you for taking the time and effort to comment here! Unless you are spamming me, in which case, thanks for nothing.