A review of The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan (W.W. Norton & Company 2017)
It’s been several months since we young-Hemingway wannabes in Michigan put away our rods and reels, cleaned our lines and continuously embellished the length and weights of the prey we caught – and especially the ones that got away. It’s a cycle we have learned to live with. There have been good years, great years and sometimes years when we couldn’t get a trout to take a worm much less a dry fly. Then there are also those pesky invasive plant and aquatic species.
The Great Lakes surrounding Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and New York (and, yes, Canada) are no different. Fluctuations of water levels and invasive species over the past century have threatened the vibrancy of an ecosystem estimated to contain 20 percent of the world’s fresh water – and, thus, the largest source of surface water on the planet. Additionally, the lakes boast more than 10,000 miles of shoreline.
Unforeseen consequences of human activity and downright poor stewardship of the watershed combined with naturally occurring cycles over the course of the Great Lakes’ history are only portions of the story Dan Egan tells in The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. But, as Egan carefully explains, for all the dunderheaded human mistakes performed to the detriment of the Great Lakes, human ingenuity also eventually corrected them. There’s a reason it’s not called the life and death of the Great Lakes.
After a brief but informative geological history of the lake system, Egan (who grew up in Michigan and currently resides in Wisconsin) also discusses the first European explorers to chart the territory. Jacques Cartier failed to blaze a trail through the turbulent upstream waters of the St. Lawrence River. Later French explorers soon succeeded where Cartier failed by portaging their birch bark canoes miles around the rapids.
Egan then dons his investigative journalist’s cap to recount numerous human boondoggles that were not only ecological but also economic disasters. The first is the dredging of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The upper Great Lakes (Lakes Michigan, Huron, Erie and Superior) rise 600 feet above the water level of the Atlantic Ocean, from which they flow over the Niagara Falls to Lake Ontario into the St. Lawrence River to the ocean.
This difficulty was circumvented partially when the British built a canal in the late 18th century to supply troops stationed near Montreal. This canal, writes Egan, was a technological marvel despite spanning a length barely the size of a football field and containing only three navigation locks. The Lachine Rapids were bypassed in 1825 by an eight-mile long canal that featured seven locks that raised boats 45 feet from one waterway to the next. The beneficial economic impact was felt immediately: 2,000 voyages annually carried 24,000 tons of goods between Montreal and Lake Ontario throughout the 1830s.
Similarly, the opening of the Erie Canal connected the eponymous lake with the Hudson River – 363 miles from Albany to New York – in 1825. The economic advantages to the United States didn’t escape notice in Canada, which followed suit with the Welland Canal and St. Lawrence Locks. However, demand outpaced capacity and a single 633-foot ship carrying 15,000 tons of wheat was too large to pass the by-now antiquated locks on the St. Lawrence River.
Hence, the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway began in earnest in 1955, with the intention of creating a true international waterway from Duluth, Minnesota, to all points east. The point of comparison, of course, was the tremendous economic opportunities realized by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. What was true in the Mideast nearly a century earlier was woefully false in North America. From the start, the Seaway faced overwhelming competition from innovations in the trucking industry, which resulted in trucking cargo in shipping containers costing manufacturers 16 cents per ton compared to waterway costs of $5.83 per ton.
The economic promises of the St. Lawrence Seaway that justified the squandering of taxpayer dollars essentially in the service of crony capitalism (and hampered by the same) was just the beginning. According to Egan:
“The overriding, overwhelming regret is that we built it [the Seaway] too small,” the late U.S. congressman from Minnesota, Jim Oberstar, a longtime Seaway booster, once told me. “The railroads didn’t want to see larger-sized locks in the St. Lawrence Seaway that would compete with the railroads, and the East Coast ports didn’t want to see competition from the Great Lakes, and together they combined to limit the size of the Seaway locks.”
Those ships that did pass through the Seaway to the Great Lakes brought with them invasive species, including zebra and quagga mussels and gobies. When those species were released with the ships’ ballast water, they spread botulism that killed native bird populations, including eagles and herons.
Alewives and sea lamprey introduced into the Great Lakes decimated the lake trout population. Sea lamprey migrated into the lakes through the canals built in the 19th century. By 1949, biologists predicted the bloodsucking parasite would irreversibly destroy the Great Lakes’ stock of lake trout – and therefore a previously lucrative sport and commercial fishing industry.
Researching the spawning habits of the lamprey, Vernon Applegate discovered they mated in rivers and streams. He performed what is “considered by today’s scientists to have been the biological equivalent of a moon shot” by conducting laboratory experiments with poisons that might kill the lamprey but not other wildlife. While not entirely eradicated, the lamprey threat was abated significantly.
When mounds of rotting alewives (essentially herring adapted to living in fresh water) began turning up on the Great Lakes’ beaches, it was determined necessary to introduce a predator into the ecosystem. Thanks to the research by the book’s second hero, Howard Tanner, newly introduced coho and chinook salmon not only gobbled up alewives by the ton but also kick-started what eventually amounted to a rebirth of the Midwest’s sport-fishing industry in the 1960s. Tanner himself does not attribute the reduction of alewives to the introduction of nonnative salmon predators, however, noting that there weren’t enough salmon in the Great Lakes in 1967 to make a dent in the alewife population.
The alewife decline eventually led to much smaller populations of salmon, and the boom years of salmon fishing in the late 1960s and into the late 1980s diminished. Egan notes, however, that Great Lakes’ whitefish numbers are rebounding due to natural evolution that allows the fish to adequately digest mussels and gobies, another invasive species of fish.
Other contemporary threats to the Great Lakes include Asian carp and, according to Egan, water levels that pingponged between a record low in 2013 and a record high in 2017. His remarkable book makes clear, however, that for all the carelessness, ignorance and naivete of the human race, we can also act as pretty darned good stewards of God’s creation.
Featured image used under Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0). Some changes made.