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Great Lakes Glory: How Long Will it Last?

The five great lakes – Michigan, Huron, Erie, Superior, and Ontario, make up 50% of the water consumed by Michiganders on a daily basis and are used by 40 million people as a primary water source. On top of that, the lakes have become a popular tourist attraction and millions of people visit each year. Unfortunately, the condition of these lakes are rapidly deteriorating; invasive species, pollution, and climate change have been hurting the lakes in recent years, and it’s only getting worse. 

The sea lamprey displays its daunting teeth.

Both invasive and non-native species have been wreaking havoc on the great lakes region. Invasive species such as zebra mussels, quagga mussels, round gobies, sea lamprey, and alewife have destroyed the habitats of native species and disrupted the entire great lakes ecosystem. Out of the countless invasive species in the region, the sea lamprey has been deemed the most harmful and destructive. First detected in the lakes in the 1830s from the Atlantic Ocean through shipping canals, this 20-inch eel-like organism has caused detrimental damage to the area’s trout populations. The sea lamprey attacks their prey in a similar fashion to a leech: they attach themselves to fish using their teeth and then proceed to suck out the fish’s bodily fluids, like how a leech sucks the blood of its host. Unfortunately, most fish either die immediately following the attack or die shortly afterward due to infections on the wound. Each individual sea lamprey manages to kill up to 40 pounds of fish in the 12-18 month feeding period in their life. Fortunately, however, there is hope to stop this organism from permanently harming the great lakes ecosystem. Various sea lamprey control plans have been implemented for each lake, and as of September of 2021, the sea lamprey abundances in lake Michigan, Erie, and Ontario are meeting the “target,” meaning that the sea lamprey are well on their way to disappearing from the great lakes in the future.

Plastic items along the beach of Lake Michigan.

Pollution plays a major factor not only in the disruption of the region’s ecosystem but also negatively impacts the overall water quality of the lakes. One of the largest sources of pollution threatening the Great Lakes is phosphorus runoff from the surrounding farmland. Nutrients from the phosphorus feed harmful algal blooms, which is when rapid growth of microscopic algae in the water occurs, resulting in a colored scum resting on the surface of the water. The algal blooms have the potential to harbor toxins that can harm both humans and animals. Another major source of pollution is plastic. The plastic waste that ends up in the Great Lakes breaks down into microplastics, causing serious harm to countless organisms. On average, more than 22 million pounds of plastic makes its way into the Great Lakes, most of which eventually turn into microplastics. The best way to protect the Great Lakes from future plastic-related pollution is to stop using single-use plastics such as plastic straws, water bottles, and grocery bags. 

Climate change is currently altering and will continue to alter nature within the Great Lakes area. The absence of certain fish species, changes in behavior amongst aquatic insects, and heavy rain that often result in flooding have become major issues in the region in recent decades. Unfortunately, environmentalists expect that the worst is still yet to come. Global warming has caused the Great Lakes to increase in temperature in unpredictable ways. This has also affected the ice coverage on the lakes from year to year. Despite this, the Great Lakes region has fared better than most other parts of the United States. Other regions have experienced droughts, wildfires, and hurricanes, so in comparison, many believe that the Great Lakes region is still fairly well-off. However, it is only a matter of time before changes such as these further impact the Great Lakes.

Works cited (APA 7 style)

Great Lakes Fishery Commission – Sea Lamprey. (2019). Glfc.org. http://www.glfc.org/sea-lamprey.php

Great Lakes Plastic Pollution. (2021). Alliance for the Great Lakes. https://greatlakes.org/great-lakes-plastic-pollution-fighting-for-plastic-free-water/#:~:text=More%20than%2022%20million%20pounds

In the Great Lakes State, water is a core tenet of EGLE’s mission and vision. (2020, September 8). MI Environment; Michigan.gov. https://www.michigan.gov/mienvironment/0,9349,7-385-90161-538646–,00.html

Invasive Species : Great Lakes Region. (2010). Noaa.gov. https://www.regions.noaa.gov/great-lakes/index.php/great_lakes-restoration-initiative/invasive-species/

Matheny, K. (2020, September 25). Invasive sea lampreys in Great Lakes, and the lake trout they prey on, puzzle scientists. Detroit Free Press. https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2020/09/25/invasive-sea-lampreys-trout-great-lakes/3523358001/

McDowell, A. (2019, September 13). 10 Great Lakes Fun Facts You May Not Know. Michigan. https://www.michigan.org/article/trip-idea/great-lakes-fun-facts

Radio, M. (2021, August 6). Great Lakes in Peril: Invasives, pollution, climate change. Great Lakes Now. https://www.greatlakesnow.org/2021/08/great-lakes-peril-invasives-pollution-climate-change/

US EPA,REG 05. (2019, February 6). Invasive Species in the Great Lakes | US EPA. US EPA. https://www.epa.gov/greatlakes/invasive-species-great-lakes

Images courtesy of Flickr, Wikimedia Commons, and Pixabay.

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