Great Lakes

The Great Lakes are the largest freshwater system on the Earth's surface, home to a fragile fishery, and delicate shoreline beaches and dunes. They are also central to northern Michigan tourism, economies and our way of life. 

NASA

Environmental leaders are asking for federal help to fight pollution in Lake Erie. 

The National Wildlife Federation, along with U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell and Marcy Kaptur, wants the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to list the western part of the lake as ‘impaired.’ Officials in Michigan already consider that section of the lake to be impaired.

The problem is algal blooms.

Sam Corden

Since 2006, Lake Michigan has seen a steady stream of dead birds washing up on its beaches, and this fall has been exceptionally grim.

So far, researchers and volunteers have found around 5000 dead birds along the shore.

Two researchers are monitoring the coast where dead birds have been washing up: Dan Ray of the National Park Service and Jeanie Williams of the Inland Seas Education Association.

 

They’re known as the Mother Earth Water Walkers: Two Anishinaabe grandmothers and a group of Anishinaabe women and men, walking the perimeter of the Great Lakes, hoping to raise awareness of the environmental and manmade threats against the lakes.

They began walking in 2003, and over the next six years walked all of the 11,525 miles around the Great Lakes.

Now the story of the Water Walkers is told in a children’s book by Michigan author Carol Trembath, with illustrations by David W. Craig.

Sam Corden

Larry Bordine grew up a surfer in California, but when he moved to Michigan in the 80s, he left the surfing lifestyle behind.

 

After a trip to Hawaii, Larry’s childhood passion was reignited, and he wanted to bring that passion back home to Michigan. He bought a surfboard but it didn’t work with the fresh water waves – so he designed his own board just for the Great Lakes.

 

In the last few weeks, roughly 600 birds have died along the shore of Lake Michigan. They washed up on the beaches within the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, with more dead birds reported on beaches in the Upper Peninsula.

It’s the busy time of year for commercial fishing on the Great Lakes. But the price of whitefish is about half what it was three years ago, because of problems with international trade.

A lot of people are focused on trying to fix Lake Erie’s toxic bloom problem. The green cyanobacteria blooms are fueled by phosphorus that gets into the lake from farms and sewage treatment plants.

A new report says we need to focus a lot more on cleaning up the streams in Michigan and other states that feed the lake.

Stuart Ludsin is an author of the report and an associate professor at Ohio State University. He says too much sediment, phosphorus and nitrogen can also hurt the fish in streams.

Reviving Michigan's coastal marshes

Sep 22, 2016

 

Most visitors to northern Michigan are looking for sugar sand beaches on the Great Lakes. But if you’re a spawning fish or a migratory bird, you might be looking for a coastal marsh.

The Great Lakes used to be lined with coastal marshes that were full of native plants and wildlife. But in lower Michigan, many of these places been drained, plowed, polluted and, more recently, overrun by exotic plants from other parts of the world.

 

Some conservation groups are working to restore and protect the marshes we have left.

Scientists launched a kind of underwater robotic tool in Lake Erie this week to test the water for toxins.

Timothy Davis is a researcher with NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

“We affectionately call it a lab in a can,” he says.

He says this tool takes water samples to test the levels of a toxin in the green blooms of cyanobacteria that've been showing up in the lake each year.

Fertile grass carp found in Canadian waters of Lake Erie

Sep 14, 2016

The Canadian government has confirmed that, for the first time, a fertile grass carp has been caught in the Canadian waters of western Lake Erie.

Grass carp are considered less of a threat than bighead and silver carp (but grass carp can eat a lot of aquatic plants) and for a long time, people thought the grass carp in the lakes were sterile. But lately, fertile grass carp have been turning up.

A commercial fisherman caught the fish off Point Pelee.

 

Enbridge Energy’s Line 5 goes right under Lake Michigan. It splits into two pipelines at the Straits, and it was recently announced that the supports that hold the pipeline in place are not in compliance with a 1953 easement agreement with the state.

Lake Erie's toxic blooms have earned the lake a new label

Sep 1, 2016

State officials in Ohio want to list parts of the Lake Erie shoreline and drinking water intakes in the lake as impaired. They want to do this because of the toxic blooms of cyanobacteria that have been growing on the lake every year. The blooms are fueled by excess nutrients, mostly phosphorus, that get into the lake from farms and sewage treatment plants.

An impaired listing under the Clean Water Act sets pollution limits and outlines what has to happen to clean up that pollution.

A team of scientists from the U.S. and Canada are setting sail on Saturday. They’re heading out on a research trip to sample plastic pollution in all five of the Great Lakes.

It's part of a project called EXXpedition Great Lakes: seven research boats led by female scientists who are studying microplastic pollution. Microplastic pollution is made up of plastic particles that are five millimeters in diameter, or smaller.

It has scales so tough Native Americans once used them as arrowheads.

It can grow longer than a horse, and it loves to munch on Asian carp.

It's the alligator gar!

This ancient fish is found in the south, but they're being restocked in rivers and lakes as far north as Illinois in hopes they might control Asian carp and, in turn, protect the Great Lakes. 

Toxic blooms of cyanobacteria have been forming on Lake Erie for several years now.

A kind of cyanobacteria called Microcystis produces a toxin that can hurt pets and make the water unsafe to drink. Back in 2014, Toledo had to shut down its drinking water supply because of the toxin.

The states around the lake – and Ontario - are working to cut back on phosphorus. It’s a nutrient that runs off from farms and wastewater treatment plants and makes those toxic blooms grow like crazy.

The Great Lakes Commission just launched a new pilot program with Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Ontario. It’ll be a trading program for phosphorus, and they’re calling it the Erie P Market.

The U.S. and Canada have added polybrominated diphenyl ethers to their list of "Chemicals of Mutual Concern."

PBDEs are a class of flame retardants in furniture, electronics, car seats and the padding under our carpets. But the toxic chemicals don’t stay put. They leach out and build up in people and in wildlife.

Dave Dempsey is a policy advisor with the International Joint Commission. The IJC advises both countries on Great Lakes issues.

A recent study published in Environmental Monitoring and Assessments finds turtles are getting doses of heavy metals such as lead and copper.

Matt Cooper is one of the co-authors of this study. He’s a research scientist at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin.

Keeping Pacific salmon in Lake Michigan

Jun 14, 2016

50 years ago, officials put Pacific salmon into the Great Lakes to eat an invasive fish called the alewife, and a huge sport fishery was born.

These days, you can still catch both coho and chinook salmon. But people are worried there's not enough food in Lake Michigan for chinook salmon.

Researchers say they’ve found grass carp eggs in the Sandusky River for the first time. The river flows into Lake Erie near Cedar Point.

Grass carp are a type of invasive Asian carp. This is the first time scientists have had direct confirmation that the fish are reproducing in the river.

Holly Embke found the eggs. She’s a master’s student at the University of Toledo.

Ohio DNR

Colonies of Caspian terns are becoming harder to find in Lakes Michigan and Huron.

James Ludwig is an ornithologist who has studied migratory birds in the region since the 1960s and just finished a trip across the Canadian waters of Lake Huron. He says he found about 100 Caspian tern nests where he found more than 1,900 in 1995.

Ludwig says the situation for Caspian terns is similar in the Michigan waters of the upper Great Lakes.

Lake Michigan residents and business owners are expressing concern over rising water levels. Just three years ago, however, the concern was about record low water levels in the Great Lakes.

Al Steinman, president of the Annis Water Resources Institute at Grand Valley State University, told Stateside that there’s no need to worry about such a significant fluctuation in lake levels.

“People need to be patient,” Steinman said. “These water levels go up and down. It’s part of the natural cycle.”

A federal judge in Washington, D.C. has halted programs to reduce the number of cormorants in the Great Lakes region. The federal government and tribes in Michigan kill the birds to protect yellow perch, walleye and other fish. But the judge said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service overstepped its bounds when it authorized killing cormorants in more than 20 states.

Peter Payette visited the Les Cheneaux Islands in Michigan this week to talk to people who live there.

Water levels in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron were at record lows three years ago. At the same time, water levels for the other Great Lakes were well below average.

This year is a bit different. Lake Michigan could be at a near-record high. The lake has risen four feet since that all-time low in January 2013.

Kathleen Torrenson is the president of Torreson Marine in Muskegon. She joined us today on Stateside to discuss how the changing water levels have affected her business and others located along the shoreline.

Torreson said these new high water levels are good for the boating business in the Great Lakes.

“It allows our customers and the people using the water a lot more flexibility in where they’re going and what they’re using,” she said.

But it’s not all good news.

“On the other side of the coin, high water tends to be really, really tough on fixed objects, like sea walls and fixed docks and things like that, things that were built when water levels were at other depths,” Torrenson said. “And as the water comes up and up, they become more prone to damage and erosion, kind of like what they’ve been seeing along the beaches.”

Torrenson said another effect of the sea level rise is that there’s “a lot less beach” compared to a couple years ago. Another flip side, however, is businesses like hers have had to do far less dredging to keep the lake deep enough for boats coming in near the shore.

There’s a coalition of federal and state agencies working to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.

It’s called the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee. It just came out with its carp plan for this year.

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