Book Review: The Death and Life of the Great Lakes

on Jul1

1 July 2017 | 9:31 pm

The gem that makes Chicago sparkle is our lake which many would call a crystal clear blue ocean on a beautiful sunny day. It is a vast sea of fresh water that wraps along our pristine shoreline.

But how many of us know about our lake and what makes it precious, what changes it has experienced or the challenges it faces. This is one of the five Great Lakes that we drink from, sail on, swim in and gaze in wonder whether we are driving, riding or walking along it.

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan is the perfect book to answer all those questions and more about a mystical aquatic wonder right under our noses.

“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,” Egan writes. “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 is 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 threat after it was opened up via the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic Ocean – where instead of becoming a bustling international seaport, invasive saltwater species invaded our Great Lakes like a virus destroying our native fish and plant population.

The zebra and quagga mussels from the Caspian Sea hitched a ride 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,” Egan writes, “it’s the sign of one in which the bottom of the food web is collapsing.”

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

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

The locks were never wide enough to allow a constant flow of massive ships and today cargo typically accounts for about 5 percent or less of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway shipping industry. A congressman told Egan that they built the canal too small because the railroads didn’t want to see larger-sized locks in the St. Lawrence Seaway that would compete with them and so they worked with the East Coast ports who also didn’t need the competition to limit the size of the Seaway locks. 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 would contain invasive species detrimental to the Great Lakes ecology.

The Great Lakes is home to wonderous 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 white fish vanished due to an invasive species called the lamprey that was like a vampire sucking the life out of the native fish species. The lamprey looks like a giant oversized tadpole and somehow 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 invading the Americas feeding on the native population which had lived peacefully for thousands of years. The fish, like the Indians, were suddenly threatened with extinction.

Egan’s story about the lamprey and how it was finally destroyed was like reading an exciting mystery detective novel. He tells the story of biologist Vernon Applegate who should have a statute erected along the Great Lakes shores for the work he did to learn everything about this little-known creature and eventually eradicate our precious freshwaters of this vile vampire and restore our beloved lake trout.

The next invasive Atlantic specie known as the Cockroach-of-the-Inland-Seas was the alewives which could only be turned into cat food or liquid fertilizer. In 1967 three of the five Great Lakes – Michigan, Huron, and Ontario – were overrun by the 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. This 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 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.”

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 that number had been slashed in half thanks to the Clean Water Act. The overall cost to cities and power companies trying to keep pipes mussel-free over the last 25 years is $1.5 billion while ballast invasions damage to fisheries and other recreational activities is about $200 million annually. In 2008 the US Seaway operators began requiring all Great Lakes-bound overseas vessels to flush their ballast tanks with mid-ocean saltwater and no new exotic organisms have been found in the Great Lakes since.

In Part II of the book entitled “Back Door” Egan writes how Lake Michigan was opened up to the Gulf of Mexico via construction of the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal, which allows Chicago’s sewage to run 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 American’s tributaries, unleashing ecological havoc. So far the battle to keep the carp out of Lake Michigan via an electric barrier has been successful, but this feared invasive fish has been sighted on the Chicago River only a block away from the lakeshore.  “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 via the superhighway  – the Sanitary and Ship Canal – 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.”

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 lakes 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.

The end of the book isn’t as exciting as the beginning and middle, but it is filled with important information people living in Chicago and anywhere near the Great Lakes should know. Only three percent of the water on our planet is fresh water, and of that, most is locked up in polar ice caps or trapped too far underground. Our Great Lakes which were carved up during the last ice age constantly drain out to the Atlantic, and constantly 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 (I hope that’s not the case here!) and 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 biologists’ amazement, the lake’s native fish species surged immediately after the alewives disappeared. And today lake trout are again successfully breeding in the wild. Egan writes that the “front door” to Greak Lakes invasions can be shut by forcing ships sailing up the Seaway, only 455 overseas ships sailed in 2015, to transfer their cargo to local ships or railroad lines.

Egan writes that the question of should our Great Lakes be managed to maximize sport fishing, 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.”

I think this is the perfect book to take to the beach, enjoy this summer and know a little more about the Great Lake we’re about to jump into.

By Jim Vail


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