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Book Review: The Death and Life of the Great Lakes
“A great lake can hold all the mysteries of an ocean, and then some.”
Posted on July 5, 2018
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Ecosystems are the perfect example of balance. Each organism plays an important part in the system and ensuring that everything works efficiently. But what happens when there is wise-scale disruption? The Life and Death of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan tells this story of ecosystem disruption and its very complicated outcomes in the Great Lakes that straddle the Canadian-American border. Taking a historical perspective, Dan Egan explains some of the unintentional ways that humans have impacted the Great Lakes. The St Lawrence Seaway, a grand dream for many at the time of its inception, led to many more consequences than just its high cost and impractical size for trade ships to fit through. Criticized as a failure on more than one front, it also bypassed nature’s barrier for other species trying to get into the Great Lakes, Niagara Falls. This region, covering an impressive 151, 278 square kilometres, would never be the same again.

The Seaway, which opened in 1959, was supposed to become the next Panama Canal, turning the cities that straddle the Great Lakes into major port cities with bustling industries producing manufactured goods. These goods would be shipped through the Great Lakes, down the St Lawrence Seaway and on to other cities across the Atlantic. Instead, the canal was built too small for modern industrial shipping boats, and due to lack of funds, was forced to be completed with this gross oversight. The only great “success” of this canal was becoming the conduit through which invasive species could efficiently enter the Great Lakes and drastically alter the ecosystem.

The lock system that facilitated the opening of the St.Lawrence Seaway.

This brings us to one such invasive: the zebra mussel. This species was introduced through the ballast water that shipping boats released once they entered the Great Lakes basin. Zebra mussels are extremely small and razor sharp and they would not be worth the effort to open. There would be no eating-invasive species campaign for this critter. These mussels, along with the equally as invasive quagga mussel, are extremely efficient at growing quickly, reproducing successfully and covering everything they attach themselves to. Within 20 years they have gone from anomaly to dominant species within the entire Great Lakes region.

Zebra mussels are perhaps the perfect invasive species, covering boats, pipes and wreaking watery havoc.

There are now an astounding 186 recorded non-native species living within the Great Lakes. Such a large number of new species has led to the decimation of several native fish populations, poisonous algae growth and even botulism poisoning coastal bird populations. This precious space represents 20% of the world’s available freshwater and Dan Egan lovingly explains why this resource is such an important one to protect. He is hopeful that proper management, legislation and new technologies can also help to reduce further risk of new invasive species causing more damage. However, Egan firmly warns of the dangers of underestimating looming threats, such as the northern expansion of Asian carp, which could ultimately lead to the demise of current healthy freshwater fisheries that many depend on for their livelihoods. If you are curious about how history, unintended consequences and 20% of our worlds entire available freshwater resources intersect, this book would be a true delight to anyone who picks it up. As Canadians, we take great pride in our coasts, but is also important to remember that we should be considered stewards of all our water resources, including our precious Great Lakes.


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