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Conserving Lake Erie and Our Great Lakes

Posted on Feb 3, 2017 by in Conservation, Education

For many of us who live in Northeast Ohio, Lake Erie is a place where we can visit and have fun. The scenic beaches, great fishing, boating and other recreational opportunities are all reasons people are living by such a great waterway.  Lake Erie and its counterparts; Huron, Michigan, Superior, and Ontario are important for many more reasons than being fun to visit. Formed 10,000 years ago as the glaciers retreated forming large depressions that filled with water, the great lakes took on their familiar formation that they are found today. These lakes provide critical habitat for thousands of native species, supply vast amounts of drinking water to millions of people and served as important connection route to the Atlantic Ocean via the Saint Lawrence River.

The Great Lakes impressively span over 94,000 square miles and hold about 6 quadrillion gallons of water!  That accounts for 20% of the world’s fresh water reserves and 90% of the U.S.’s drinking water supply1. The people of the United States aren’t the only ones who depend on the Great Lakes fresh water; Canada does too with about 35 million people from both countries living within the Great Lakes Basin. When combined, all five lakes make up 10,000 miles of shoreline2. This shoreline is made up of forested areas, urban centers, and wetlands.

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Great Lakes

There are many benefits to the Great Lakes for both people and wildlife. As a whole, the lakes bring in about $4.5 billion just with the sport fishing industry3.  Many fishermen enjoy catching walleye, lake trout, perch and other sport fish.  Recent studies by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) found that the revenue brought in from all economic activities such as boating, fishing, hunting and wildlife watching in the Great Lake States amounted to $50 billion5! The lakes and surrounding basin is home to 3,500 species of plants and animals, including more than 170 species of fish4. They also provide critical breeding and migrating areas for colonial and migratory birds.

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Now, lets recap the importance of our Great Lakes: large revenues for local economies brought in through the wildlife and recreation uses, home to thousands of natural species of plants and animals, thousands of miles of beautiful shorelines used both for natural and developmental purposes, and most importantly serve as 90% of the U.S. citizens drinking water.  With so many important factors built into the Great Lakes we must too consider the threats.

Many of us living within Northeast Ohio can joke about the time in 1969 that the Cuyahoga River caught fire because it was polluted from decades of dumping industrial waste, but this shouldn’t be a laughing matter. Today, while Ohio has cleaned up Lake Erie, there are still active threats to our waterways including; invasive species, pollution, and wetland destruction.

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Invasive species have already changed the ecology of our lakes.  Zebra mussels and the sea lamprey are now comfortably adapted to the lakes.  Zebra mussels can be found sticking to any hard surface-being docks, rocks and even boats.  They are such efficient filter feeders that while they do contribute to clearer water, they also make it harder for small fish to catch a meal.  The Sea lamprey has successfully out competed the native lake trout as the top predator in 4 out of 5 of the Great Lakes.  Only Lake Superior has a natural breeding population that can still out compete the sea lamprey.  The other four lakes have to be annually restocked with lake trout to keep their numbers viable2.  One invasive fish that has yet to make its way to the Great Lakes is the Asian Carp, a prolific feeder with no natural predators.  It will out compete many of the large carnivorous fish within our lakes if it is able to cross from the Mississippi waterway.

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Sea Lampray

Chemical contaminants are another important threat that cannot be ignored. Pollutants such as DDT and PCBs, while not as much as a threat as they were in the 70’s and 80’s are still contributors to much of the contaminants found in the lakes, built up as a result of over use of insecticides on our farms and improper disposal of coolant fluids.  Chemicals such as mercury can build up in fish as a result of the emissions from coal burning plants. Excessive use of nutrients and fertilizers on big farms leach into ground water and end up in the lakes causing harmful algal blooms that can make people sick1.

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Satellite photo of 2011 toxic algae bloom (shown in green)

Wetlands are important wildlife refuges that are becoming threatened from human and invasive animal impacts. Important wetland ecology is being disrupted through increased development from both home building and industrial use.  Even the introduction of our new invasive species can harm important food web ecology.  It may sound like the stuff of nightmares, but there is hope, and it comes from people like you!

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Many foundations including the National Science Foundation, NOAA, the Sierra Club and many other Non-Profit organizations are here to help us keep our Great Lakes in good condition.  There are also important policies in place such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts that help police big businesses from dumping pollutants and protecting our waterways.  The biggest difference though, can come from you!  Did you know that there are things you can do to make Lake Erie and the rest of the Great Lakes great?  Even by supporting policies that create renewable energy or by using energy efficient products, you can help keep our water clean and wildlife safe6. Also, remember that you can be helpful just by conserving water: take shorter showers, don’t excessively water your lawn, and turn off the faucet while brushing your teeth. It may all sound like small contributions, but if everyone chips in, we will keep our Great Lakes in great condition for future generations.

Miscellaneous ways you can help our lakes7:

To Reduce Invasive Species:

*If you are an angler or a boater, power wash your boat and trailer before putting it into another body of water, or let it dry for at least five days.

*Drain your bait wells, bait buckets, and other equipment on land, not into the water.

*Never release live fish or aquatic plants into the wild, such as aquarium fish or species such as the Asian carp.

*Do not leave the bank or shore of any water with any live fish or live fish eggs, including leftover minnows.

To reduce polluted runoff:

*Use rain barrels to collect water.

*Don’t put yard waste in the roads.

*Reduce use of pesticides and fertilizers.

*Use non-toxic cleaning products in your home.

*Do not burn trash.

*Dispose of medications at proper facilities.




3 Aquatic nuisance species in the New York State Canal and Hudson River systems and the Great Lakes Basin: an economic and environmental assessment.” Environ Manage. 2005 May;35(5):692-702.


5 NOAA’s Great Lakes Region