Scientists: Great Lakes Ecosystem In Danger Of Collapse

With the disappearance of wetlands the degradation of shorelines, the immune system of the Great Lakes is breaking down and the ecosystem is in danger of collapse, according to a report released on Dec. 8.

The region's leading scientists, who released the report, say their findings underscore the urgent need for comprehensive restoration to repair the "immune system" of the Great Lakes, and to reverse a pattern of decline that threatens to affect drinking water, swimming, fishing, tourism and other benefits derived from the largest body of freshwater in the world.

"This report serves as a warning," said Alfred Beeton, Ph.D., one of the lead authors and former director of the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. "The Great Lakes are deteriorating at a rate unprecedented in their recorded history and are nearing the tipping point of ecosystem-wide breakdown. If we want to restore this resource, it is time to act now."

The paper reports that the Great Lakes buffering capacity, or immune system, is breaking down, rendering ineffective the self-regulating system of the lakes to protect themselves and recover from new stresses like pollution and invasive species.

"If not addressed with great urgency," states the report, "the Great Lakes system may experience further -- and potentially irreversible -- damage."

To date approximately 60 scientists, including the region's Sea Grant directors, have endorsed the paper, "Prescription for Great Lakes Ecosystem Protection and Restoration: Avoiding the Tipping Point of Irreversible Changes," and its recommendations.

"As alarming as this diagnosis may be, the solution is relatively straightforward and achievable if we act now," said Don Scavia, Ph.D., another lead author and professor of natural resources at the University of Michigan. "To restore the Great Lakes, we need to start treating the lakes holistically, and not just as a series of isolated problems to be solved one at a time."

The report recommends:

  • Restoring the Great Lakes immune system by rehabilitating coastal habitats and the wetlands and tributaries that serve as a filter for the Great Lakes.
  • Stopping the addition of new sources of stress, like non-native species.
  • Protecting areas that are still healthy.
  • Monitoring the restoration process to determine whether the Great Lakes are in recovery or ongoing decline.

According to the report, despite progress in some areas, the Great Lakes are exhibiting a number of disturbing symptoms that led the scientists to conclude they may be on the verge of a breakdown. Some of these problems include the increasing number of beach closings caused by bacteria contamination, rapid disappearance of diporeia -- a key fish food -- that has severely disrupted the food chain, the resurgence of the Lake Erie "dead zone," and the widespread and sudden decline in native fish such as yellow perch.

The report comes as President Bush and EPA prepare to release on Dec. 12 a plan to restore the Great Lakes as part of the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration, a year-long process established by President Bush to develop a blueprint for restoring the Great Lakes. Advocates call for $20 billion in restoration funding over 15 years, to come mostly from the federal government but also from state and local governments. However, the federal agency has indicated that the restoration plan may have to rely on existing federal money and programs.

"The paper provides us with a science-based roadmap to restore the Great Lakes," said Andy Buchsbaum, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes office and co-leader of the Healing Our Waters -- Great Lakes Coalition. "It is now time to act on it. We hope the final plan released next week addresses the urgency of these problems and paves the way for restoration of this precious freshwater resource."

The Great Lakes comprise almost 20 percent of the world's surface fresh water and supply drinking water to more than 40 million U.S. and Canadian residents. The Great Lakes also support local agriculture; a diversity of wildlife, including a world-class fishery, maritime trade, industry and tourism.

The report is available at

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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