Report: Prescription for Great Lakes Ecosystem Protection and Restoration

An excerpt from the report, Prescription for Great Lakes Ecosystem Protection and Restoration: Avoiding the Tipping Point of Irreversible Change appears below. To read the report in full, please click on the link at the bottom of the page.


OVERVIEWThere is widespread agreement that the Great Lakes presently are exhibiting symptoms of extreme stress from a combination of sources that include toxic contaminants, invasive species, nutrient loading, shoreline and upland land use changes, and hydrologic modifications. Many of these sources of stress and others have been impacting the lakes for over a century. These adverse impacts have appeared gradually over time, often in nearshore areas, in the shallower portions of the system, and in specific fish populations. Factors such as the size of the lakes, the time delay between the introduction of stress and subsequent impacts, the temporary recovery of some portions of the ecosystem, and failure to understand the ecosystem-level disruptions caused by the combination of multiple stresses have led to the false assumption that the Great Lakes ecosystem is healthy and resilient. 

Because it has taken the Great Lakes four centuries of exposure to these human-induced stresses to get to this point, some argue we have decades to control these and other sources of stress and promote the lakes’ recovery. From this perspective, protecting the Great Lakes is not particularly urgent and action can wait until we conduct more studies, while taking small corrective measures when the opportunity or need arises. However, if not addressed with great urgency, the Great Lakes system may experience further – and potentially irreversible – damage. 

In large areas of the lakes, historical sources of stress have combined with new ones to reach a tipping point, the point at which ecosystem-level changes occur rapidly and unexpectedly, confounding the traditional relationships between sources of stress and the expected ecosystem response. There is compelling evidence that in many parts of the Great Lakes we are at or beyond this tipping point. Certain areas of the Great Lakes are increasingly experiencing ecosystem breakdown, where intensifying levels of stress from a combination of sources have overwhelmed the natural processes that normally stabilize and buffer the system from permanent change. 

Although the specific episodes of ecosystem breakdown have been unpredictable and alarming, few Great Lakes researchers are surprised by these occurrences. A number of papers were published in the 1980s describing stresses in various areas of the Great Lakes, including Lake Erie and shallow embayments in lakes Michigan, Huron, and Ontario. These papers described the symptoms of the Great Lakes ecosystem under distress, and laid the foundation for a conceptual ecological framework for understanding the changes that were occurring at that time. Rapport et al. (1985) discussed ecosystem self-regulating mechanisms (such as responses to invasive species) and the process by which stresses can give rise to early warnings, coping mechanisms, and ultimately lead to ecosystem breakdown if the overall stress is sufficiently prolonged and/or intense. The ecosystem adaptation syndrome discussed in the paper can be used to help formulate a systematic ecosystem approach to environmental management of the Great Lakes. This ecosystem breakdown concept helps explain the scope, intensity, and speed of the ecosystem changes that have occurred in the Great Lakes since the 1980s. 

Examples of ecosystem breakdown or major changes in the lakes include: (1) persistence of the anoxic/hypoxic zone in the central basin of Lake Erie and other stresses in the eastern and western basins; (2) continued symptoms of impairment (including eutrophication) in Saginaw Bay and Green Bay; (3) well-documented rapid disappearance of the once abundant amphipods in the genus Diporeia in sediments of large areas of all the lakes (except for Lake Superior), and concomitant food web disruptions; (4) recent declines in growth, condition and numbers of lake whitefish in Lake Michigan and portions of Lake Huron; and (5) elimination of the macrophyte (i.e. rooted plant) community and simplification of the benthic food web, in Sandusky Bay on Lake Erie and Cootes Paradise in Hamilton Harbour on Lake Ontario, due to sediment and other pollutant loads. 

The major cause of ecosystem breakdown is the severe damage that has been done to the Great Lakes’ self-regulating mechanisms. In the past, healthy nearshore communities and tributaries helped reduce the impact of many stresses on or entering the lakes. Over time, the combined effects of a whole suite of stresses from a variety of human-induced sources have overwhelmed the ecosystem’s self-regulating mechanisms. This diagnosis suggests that it is appropriate and necessary to address multiple sources of stress in order to reverse the trend toward widespread ecosystem breakdown. The following is a list of Great Lakes management objectives based on this diagnosis. 

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