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The Great Lakes, the Amazon: Saving the world's most precious ecosystems

Marc Lefkowitz  |  08/30/19 @ 10:00am  |  Posted in Climate, Water

To appreciate why the man made fires raging across the Amazon rainforest have the world paused in terror, let's turn the mirror—to look at how we have treated the Great Lakes.

<br />Image of a shipwreck in Lake Erie from diver Jeremy Bannister

The Great Lakes were once teeming with so much life. Just below the surface, before the waves of invasive species, Dan Egan writes in The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, there was a great store of biodiversity. Some, like the invasive alewife, a small fish that made its way up the Ohio and Erie Canal, collapsed after more virulent invasive species like the quagga mussel arrived. On balance, monetizing the world’s greatest rainforest, or its largest freshwater ecosystem, refuses to be written off as a one-time loss. When the Great Lakes were opened as an international sea port in the 19th century, it was a decision littered with ecological consequences, ones that we have yet to fully come to terms with.

The canals and seaways that were supposed to make Cleveland the “Venice of the North” instead became a living pollution pipeline where an invasion of critters like the quagga, a tiny crustacean from the Caspian Sea, stowed away in the ballast water of ships. A great host of quagga litter the Great Lakes and wiped out much of the micro invertebrates like plankton which are food for fish. It’s why in the 1970s, literally billions of tons of dead alewife fish washed onto the shores of Cleveland and Chicago.

It’s a tale that has a clear lesson: Sometimes what makes ecosystems diverse (isolation) also makes them more vulnerable and in need of protection. With water ecosystems, the damage may be harder to detect. The Great Lakes once teemed with life. They were a food web of fish and smaller organisms. They are now “vodka clear.” Not a sign of health, Egan says, because trillions of quagga filter feed and feast all the way through the plankton turning the Great Lakes into an almost sterile environment.

Whole species of native fish disappeared as a result, and the quagga has had a chain effect that will be hard to untangle: clear water has been a boon to an invasive sea plant that contains a neurotoxin. The quagga eat the plant and are in turn eaten by another Caspian invader, a small fish called the round goby, which then become poisoned prey for shore birds, from herons to osprey that are dying by the tens of thousands from cases of botulism.

An interesting little known fact about the Great Lakes: 1% of the roughly trillion gallons of water in them comes from rainfall. The rest of the water was deposited around 11,000 years ago when the last Ice Age glacier, a mile high wall of ice, melted. It means the water is a non-renewable resource and should be conserved.

Instead, as Egan explores, the Great Lakes have been messed with—by those who could have prioritized its long-term health. Stories of Fish and Wildlife divisions whose priority was to boost non-native species like salmon which ultimately fizzled. Native trout aren’t as much fun to catch, and got little resources from state fishery divisions. Walleye have made a surprising comeback this year, but without a sustained, international effort to preserve the biodiversity of the Great Lakes, they could as easily back slide into oblivion. Like the vaunted effort to preserve the rainforest that once had great success, Ohioans have a special responsibility to protect the Great Lakes—for all of humanity and for the long history of these life giving waters.

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