Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

15 Oct 2016

Painting a complex picture

Posted by Michael Keating

A recent conference on the Great Lakes showed how difficult it is to neatly sum up the state of a vast and complex ecosystem. The Great Lakes Public Forum in Toronto was a triennial meeting where Canada and the United States report and receive public comments on the state of the Lakes, and on priorities for science and action. I have been covering the Great Lakes for decades, and each time I try to get a sense of how they are doing. The lakes cover more than 240,000 square kilometres. They span a distance of 1,200 kilometres. They include some of the most industrialized parts of the continent, and areas that are still wilderness. They are one of the world’s greatest freshwater systems, so they are an important barometer of our sustainability.

This year there was lots of good news and, as always some bad news. On the good side, many toxic chemicals are in decline as a result of years of controls. Controls on ballast water of visiting overseas ships appears to have stopped them from bring in more invasive species. Highly polluted “hotspots” around the lakes are slowly being cleaned up. Many fish are now safer to eat than they were a generation ago. Drinking water from the lakes is safe, and most beaches are swimmable most of the time. However, previous invasive species are causing havoc in parts of the ecosystem. New chemicals are being found in the lakes. Many species are still at risk. Lake Erie is again at risk from phosphorus pollution, largely from the runoff of fertilizers in both countries. However, the countries have set targets to reduce that pollution. There is no easy way to sum up this mosaic, but the two countries have been producing ever better reports on the lakes, and are becoming ever more open to questions and ideas from citizens. For a full progress report on the lakes check out the website operated by the two countries.

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