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A Stillness Beneath the Waves

A review by Charles Hagner

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, by Dan Egan

W.W. Norton, 2017

364 pages, hardcover

I love Lake Michigan.

I have driven around its southern end more times than I can recall. I’ve traced its contours from the windows of jet planes. And I’ve crossed it by ferry. Still, I can’t help but marvel.

I just love all that water, and how often its appearance changes. Caribbean blue and glassy one day, its surface can be Baltic gray and roiled with whitecaps the next.

Most of all, I love the lake’s birds: the Snowy Owls and vagrant gulls that appear each winter, the scaup, mergansers, and goldeneyes that linger each spring, and the long lines of nighthawks that move south along the bluffs in August.

I also love knowing that Lake Michigan supports many more birds than the few I manage to see. Every spring and fall since 2012, the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory has hired an observer to count the birds that pass a watch site on the shoreline. From the beginning of March to May 20, 2016, he recorded no fewer than 187,000 individuals. From September to November that year, his tally was almost 180,000 birds, 125,000 of them Red-breasted Mergansers. And this spring, he identified over 176,000.

Numbers as big as these make you wonder how large the grand total would be if additional observers joined in, counting at the same time at additional locations around the lake or, even better, at locations around all five of the Great Lakes.

The observatory’s totals might also lead you to assume that Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario are as healthy beneath the waves as they seem to be above. But, as Dan Egan explains in this excellent, eye-opening book, you would be wrong.

Egan is a feature writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, my hometown newspaper. In The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, he tells the complete story of the lakes, not only describing their immense size, their natural history, and their fish, but also reminding the reader of the tens of millions of people who rely on them for drinking water, employment, and recreation; the engineers and regulators and politicians who oversee them; the biologists who study them; and the host of non-native species, at least 186 strong, that now lurk in them.

In 10 readable chapters, the author chronicles invasion after invasion, recording great ecological loss without resorting to sentimentality, communicating science without relying on jargon, and raising questions of interest to birders and non-birders alike. The result will change the way you look at the Great Lakes. In doing so, this book merits comparison to Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking 1962 exposé, which changed the world’s perception of pesticides.

Egan describes several watershed moments in our history—the completion of the Erie and Welland Canals, in the 1820s the draining of Ohio’s Great Black Swamp in the late 1800s, the completion of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal in 1900, the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959—and explains how each event unleashed a torrent of unforeseeable ecological consequences that proved stubbornly resistant to remedy and transformed the lakes in ways that now threaten bodies of water across the country.

The Erie and Welland Canals opened the way for barges and ships to sail all the way from New York Harbor and Canada’s interior to Milwaukee, Chicago, and other cities, but those new commercial opportunities came at a high cost. In bypassing Niagara Falls, the canals sidestepped a natural barrier that for thousands of years had prevented not only boats but also fish and other aquatic life from moving upstream from Lake Ontario into the other lakes.

Among the species that took advantage of the newfound access was the eel-like sea lamprey, a sharp-toothed predator that feeds by attaching itself to other fish and sucking their blood. “If Bart Simpson had a pet water snake,” Egan writes, “it would look something like this.” Originally restricted to the Atlantic Ocean, the sea lamprey encountered no natural competitors in the Great Lakes and quickly devastated populations of lake trout and other native species, causing the collapse of the commercial fishing industry.

The Great Black Swamp, eponym of the bird observatory behind the Biggest Week in American Birding, was once twice the size of the Everglades. Functioning as Lake Erie’s kidney, it filtered rainwater before it could enter the Maumee River, the lake’s biggest tributary. Draining the swamp created millions of acres of productive farmland but deprived the lake of its purification system, leaving it vulnerable to phosphorus-induced blooms of toxic blue-green algae. Egan devotes a chapter to the problem, highlighting a slick that in August 2014 overwhelmed Toledo’s water-intake facility, forcing city authorities to instruct some 500,000 residents not to drink the water.

The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal linked Lake Michigan with rivers flowing west across Illinois, connecting the lake with the mighty Mississippi. By pulling lake water westward, the canal improved public health by flushing away the raw sewage that plagued Chicago, but it soon became clear that it would be a conduit for more than barges and human waste: The canal would also act as a “superhighway” for invasive species, both from the Great Lakes into the rest of North America and from the Mississippi into the Great Lakes.

Perhaps the most feared of those invasives is the bighead carp, a hulking Asian filter feeder that was first released in Arkansas in the 1970s and has been making its way north ever since, conquering ecosystem after ecosystem. These carp can grow to more than 100 pounds and consume up to 20 pounds of plankton a day, letting them starve out native fish. “The word ‘trouble’ doesn’t really capture what is at stake, both environmentally and economically, if the oversized fish succeed in what has so far seemed like their inevitable push to colonize the Great Lakes,” Egan writes.

Finally, the series of 30-foot-deep locks between Lake Ontario and Montreal known as the St. Lawrence Seaway has enabled giant freighters to steam from the East Coast to Lake Ontario and then through the Welland Canal to Midwestern cities. Boosters called it “the greatest engineering feat of our time” and promised that it would transform the Great Lakes into the nation’s fourth seacoast. The Seaway never came close to fulfilling this grand vision.

Closed during the winter, when its locks and channels freeze shut, the Seaway lost out to ports that operated 365 days a year and, more important, were able to handle the enormous container ships that soon came to rule the seas. As a result, Egan writes, the Seaway “stands alone among modern engineering marvels in that it is less famous today than it was in the years before it was built.” Yet plenty of oceangoing ships have come through the Seaway, and thanks to a loophole in the Clean Water Act that exempts discharges from ships in U.S. waters, hundreds of stowaway species, “living pollution” from around the world, have ridden along with them. Egan’s chapters on the fastest-reproducing and most destructive of these invasives—the zebra mussel, discovered in 1988 in Lake St. Clair, between Lake Huron and Lake Erie, and the quagga mussel, which turned up in Lake Erie the following year—are compelling and infuriating.

In no time, those mollusks spread across all the lakes, down the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, and throughout the Mississippi River and its tributaries. By 1994, they were found as far south as Louisiana, as far west as Oklahoma, and as far north as Minneapolis; by 2007, they had reached Lake Mead, in Nevada, on the other side of the continental divide, no doubt hitching a ride on a pleasure boat towed from the Midwest. Since then, the invaders have gone on to colonize water bodies in Arizona, California, Colorado, and Utah, and authorities in the Pacific Northwest are keeping watch in the Columbia River basin. Though invisible to me as I watch for birds, plankton-feasting mollusks now blanket the bottom of Lake Michigan almost from shore to shore. Under some conditions, Egan reports, they can filter all of the lake’s water in less than two weeks, sucking up the life at the base of the food web.

The results, as revealed by surveys conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey, have been crashing populations of sculpins, chubs, alewives, and other prey fish that sustain the lakes’ predator fish, and botulism outbreaks on Lakes Michigan, Erie, and Ontario. More than 100,000 birds—Bald Eagles, Great Blue Herons, ducks, loons, terns, plovers— have died since the outbreaks of 1999, Egan writes.

The demise of so many birds should be reason enough for birders to put Death and Life on their reading lists, but I can think of others.

For example, what’s more important: protecting a public resource or maximizing opportunities for recreation?

A man I met in South Dakota once told me, in all seriousness, that there were only two types of birds—those you can shoot and those you can’t. I thought of him while reading Egan’s account of the fishing craze that swept the Great Lakes after the state of Michigan released exotic coho and chinook salmon, species native to the Pacific Northwest, in Lake Michigan in the 1960s.

Before the salmon arrived, the lakes’ fish were treasured as a public resource. After the salmon arrived, the lakes were managed as a playground, an angler’s paradise. The craze didn’t last (there were “too many chinook mouths and not enough alewife tails,” Egan writes), but it did bring about an environmental awakening. “Back in the 1960s, nobody really cared about the Great Lakes,” explains a state biologist. “They started to care when the salmon came in…. That was the first time I saw social optimism and excitement, and it was because of a fish.”

Another question. Who should take the lead in protecting the environment: international organizations, the federal government, states, someone else?

Leadership is sorely needed. Egan reports that scientists know how to throttle Lake Erie’s annual algae blooms, but that their prescription hasn’t been followed. He writes that an electric barrier was constructed in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal to prevent the passage of invasive fish, but that it has never been operated at full voltage. And he argues that the simplest way to prevent future invasions of invasive species is to stop “salties,” oceangoing ships, at their point of entry into the lakes, yet ships continue to move through the Seaway.

Finally, just what is the best way to raise the general public’s awareness of the harm done by invasive species?

Most birders know the stories of the House Sparrow, European Starling, and other invasive species. Nonetheless, in my days as a magazine editor, I received more than one letter from readers to whom a bird is a bird is a bird. Who are we, they asked, to pick favorites? Perhaps Egan’s detailed reporting about the sea lamprey, zebra and quagga mussels, alewives, and Asian carp will bring the issue into sharper focus than anything written about a sparrow or a starling.

The health of the Great Lakes may depend on it.

– Charles Hagner is a former editor of BirdWatching magazine, a contributor to the book Good Birders Still Don’t Wear White, and a writer and editor specializing in climate change, the environment, and wildlife conservation. He is a board member of the Wisconsin-based Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory. 

Recommended citation:

Hagner, C. 2017. A Stillness Beneath the Waves [a review of The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, by Dan Egan]. Birding 49.5: 68-70.

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