Invasive Species Successes and Challenges Highlighted in Draft TAP Report

By Sally Cole-Misch, IJC

Over the past 175 years, more than 180 aquatic, non-native species have found a home in the Great Lakes. They arrived through human activities such as shipping, building the Welland Canal around Niagara Falls, or even intentional introduction. In most cases these species do not cause problems. But about 45 of these have become invasive and represent one of the toughest challenges facing the Great Lakes ecosystem.

Invasive species such as purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), zebra (Dreissena polymorpha) and quagga mussels (Dreissena bugensis), and the Asian longhorned beetle are disrupting the Great Lakes ecosystem in drastic ways
Invasive species such as purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), zebra (Dreissena polymorpha) and quagga mussels (Dreissena bugensis), and the Asian longhorned beetle are disrupting the Great Lakes ecosystem in drastic ways. Credit: Wisconsin Sea Grant, NOAA-GLERL, Nature Conservancy

This is the conclusion the IJC reached in its draft Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP) under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Canada and the United States recognized how important this issue had become when they included an annex in the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement on aquatic invasive species (AIS) to create new programs to prevent and stop these introductions. The TAP report outlines the aggressive approach both countries have taken to enforce ship ballast exchanges. This approach, in concert with AIS prevention programs by a network of federal, state, provincial and local government agencies and nongovernmental organizations, has created a key Agreement success story: Coordinated enforcement and prevention programs have achieved nearly 100 percent compliance in ballast water discharges and exchanges, with no new discoveries of AIS from ballast water discharges confirmed since 2006. This is an impressive feat, considering at least 25 million tons of cargo travels annually to the Great Lakes from international ports in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

controls ballast water ocean going ships
Controls on ballast water discharges from ocean-going ships have helped to limit introduction of non-native species since 2006. Credit: Adobe Stock

At the same time, the governments’ progress report listed the status of AIS as poor, and the trend deteriorating, and the IJC agreed with this assessment in its draft report. Why? Previously established invasive species such as zebra and quagga mussels (Dreissenids) and other AIS are spreading through the lakes, causing massive disruption to the ecosystem and food chains, and decreases in native species.

According to the TAP, “To address the spread of AIS, the regulation of ballast water discharges from ‘Lakers’, ships that remain within the Great Lakes, is being considered by Transport Canada as well as several states, though Lakers currently are exempt from US Coast Guard requirements. The two federal governments have agreed to seek consistency and compatibility between US and Canadian ballast water requirements in the 2017-2019 priorities for science and action, and this should provide a path towards compromise and harmonious joint implementation for both Lakers and seagoing vessels.”

Terrestrial invaders such as the common reed (Phragmites), garlic mustard and purple loosestrife as well as insects like the Asian longhorned beetle and emerald ash borer also are spreading across the region, which reduce native plants and cause deforestation. These impacts cause increased inputs of sediments, chemicals and nutrients into the Great Lakes.

The TAP report concludes that effective control, containment and eradication measures are essential for terrestrial and aquatic invasive species. The two countries have identified this as a priority for the next triennial cycle of Agreement work. A key to accomplishing this will be eliminating discrepancies in terms of acceptable chemical, physical and biological controls among the state, provincial and federal agencies. Stable funding for research and effective action also is essential to ensure long-term, binationally coordinated prevention and control of invasive species.


What Do You Think?

In its draft TAP report, the IJC states: “There has been significant progress in preventing the introduction of AIS to the Great Lakes. The spread of previously introduced invasive species is a major concern. Further progress on AIS prevention and control could be enhanced by improving long-term program funding mechanisms, reaching agreements on permitting the use of all types of control measures across jurisdictions and requiring ballast water exchange and flushing in addition to discharge treatment.”

Do you agree with this finding of successes and gaps in the Parties’ progress toward the achievement of this objective?

How could the Parties better harmonize permitting, remove administrative barriers and adopt an integrated approach to AIS management?

Are there other ways the Parties could improve their binational approach to invasive species?

Tell us what you think by going to Participate IJC to answer these questions and provide your thoughts about AIS in the Great Lakes before April 15, 2017.

Contribute your Thoughts, Concerns and Ideas Online and at March Great Lakes Public Meetings

It’s Your Time to Speak Up for the Great Lakes

By Sally Cole-Misch, IJC

In previous editions of this newsletter, we’ve told you about reports released by Canada, the United States and the IJC on progress to restore the vitality of the Great Lakes. Both reports are required every three years by the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which provides goals to guide the two countries’ work. Just as important are your views on how the Great Lakes are faring. We’re offering a variety of ways and places to contribute your thoughts over the next few months, which will be included in the IJC’s final report. Now’s your chance to influence what actions will be taken for the Great Lakes in the next three-year or triennial cycle. Read on for ways to contribute your voice to the conversation.

six cities health great lakes tap meetings
Join us in one of six cities to provide your insights on the health of the Great Lakes: Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario; Detroit, Michigan; the Lake Erie Center in Oregon, Ohio (top row); Sarnia, Ontario; Buffalo, New York; and St. Catharines, Ontario. Credits: City of Sault Ste. Marie, IJC, University of Toledo, City of Sarnia, Jake Haggmark, City of St. Catharines.

Read and Comment

Your first option is to review the reports – the Progress Report of the Parties and the IJC’s draft Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP) report – and provide written comments. The TAP report includes several questions for your consideration that were included to help in writing the final report and its recommendations. We welcome perceptions of the lakes from your unique vantage point, locally and as a Great Lakes citizen. All written comments can be submitted by April 15 at Participate IJC, by email to ParticipateIJC@ottawa.ijc.org, or through the mail to IJC, 234 Laurier Ave. West, 22nd Floor, Ottawa, ON K1P 6K6.

Attend an IJC Great Lakes Public Meeting

The IJC’s TAP report is in draft form to gather public input before its findings are finalized into recommendations. We met with citizens in Toronto and Milwaukee last fall after the governments released their progress report, and their comments are included in this draft TAP report. Now we’re coming to six Great Lakes communities throughout the month of March to get your reaction to both reports and your unique perceptions of the Great Lakes. Each meeting will focus initially on the Agreement topics that are most relevant to that location, but any comments about the Great Lakes are welcome at each meeting. Local experts addressing key issues will provide brief presentations, and then the floor and conversations will be yours.

Here’s the lineup:

Thursday, March 2: Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and Michigan Public Meeting
Delta Hotels by Marriott, 208 St. Mary’s River Drive, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
6 p.m. public meeting
Key topics: St. Mary’s River Area of Concern, Lake Superior lakewide management, habitat

Tuesday, March 21: Detroit, Michigan, and Windsor, Ontario, Roundtable and Public Meeting
Michigan Department of Natural Resources Adventure Center, 1801 Atwater, Detroit, Michigan
1-4 p.m. roundtable with local experts on key issues (the public is welcome to attend and listen to the conversation), 6 p.m. public meeting
Key topics: Areas of Concern, water quality and human health, green infrastructure, environmental justice, recreational use

Wednesday, March 22: Sarnia, Ontario, and Port Huron, Michigan, Public Roundtable
Lochiel Kiwanis Community Centre, 180 North College Ave., Sarnia, Ontario
1:30-4:30 p.m. public roundtable
Key topics: St. Clair River Area of Concern, chemicals of mutual concern and human health, harmful algal blooms and Great Lakes nutrient reductions

Thursday, March 23: Toledo, Ohio, Public Meeting
University of Toledo Lake Erie Center, 6200 Bay Shore Road, Oregon, Ohio
6 p.m. public meeting
Key topics: Harmful algal blooms, Lake Erie nutrient reduction, agriculture, fisheries

Tuesday, March 28: Buffalo, New York, Roundtable and Public Meeting
WNED-WBFO Studio, 140 Lower Terrace, Buffalo, New York
1:30-4:30 p.m. roundtable with local experts on key issues (the public is welcome to attend and listen to the conversation), 6 p.m. public meeting
Key topics: Areas of Concern, chemicals of mutual concern, recreational use, and wetlands and habitat

Wednesday, March 29:  St. Catharines, Ontario, and Niagara Falls Public Roundtable
Alumni Hall, St. Catharines Rowing Club, Henley Island, end of Henley Island Drive, St. Catharines, Ontario
1:30-4:30 p.m. public roundtable
Key topics: Sustainable agriculture, harmful algal blooms, Great Lakes nutrient reduction, chemicals of mutual concern and human health, and Areas of Concern.

Register to attend one or more of these sessions today to receive updated information, and look for further details in the March issue of Great Lakes Connection as well as on the IJC’s website and its social media outlets.

Be Part of the Conversation through Social Media

 You may already follow the IJC on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. If not, we invite you to join the conversation to receive meeting updates and reports as well as links to videos and comments from each session on Participate IJC. We welcome your input, retweets, shares and likes and will repost comments about progress to restore and protect the Great Lakes. All written comments should be provided on ParticipateIJC to ensure that they are part of the official record in the final TAP report.

Join the conversation and provide us with your perspectives of how the Great Lakes are faring. Now’s the time to speak out for the lakes we love.

This Fish in France Eats Birds – Banning Invasive Species Before They’re a Menace

wels catfish
A wels catfish. Credit: Dieter Florian via GLANSIS.

By Jeff Kart

An alien species of catfish beaches itself on the shore and gobbles up pigeons. It’s called the wels catfish, and it could make a home in the Great Lakes.

For now, the catfish swims in France, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service wants to keep it that way. With encouragement from groups like The Nature Conservancy, the Service banned the import or trade of 11 freshwater nonnative aquatic species last year, including the so-called killer catfish. The move is significant because it’s a change from past practice, in which outside species aren’t prohibited until after they’re already established and causing damage, said David Hamilton, the Conservancy’s senior policy director for the Great Lakes.

“None of these 11 are a household names, like the Asian carp or round goby, and that’s a good thing,” he said.

The 11 species were listed as “injurious wildlife” under the Lacey Act: the crucian carp, Prussian carp, Eurasian minnow, roach, stone moroko, Nile perch, Amur sleeper, European perch, zander, wels catfish and the common yabby.

“The yabby crayfish’s Latin name is destructor, so that gives you an idea of what kind of animal it is,” Hamilton said.

yabby crayfish
A yabby crayfish. Credit: Keith A. Crandall via Encyclopedia of Life

The 11 banned species are native to one or more continents in Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia, where they have become highly invasive, and have the potential to become invasive and highly detrimental to US native wildlife and habitats, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The zander has been found in a single lake in North Dakota, but the 10 others aren’t present in any US waters. Hamilton noted that three species of Asian carp were listed as injurious after they were imported, escaped into the wild and began advancing up the Mississippi River.

Hamilton explains that the Great Lakes and other parts of the US have similar climates to regions in the creatures’ home countries, meaning they could thrive in one of the Great Lakes if someone bought one for an aquarium and later released it. In time, the wels catfish or any of the 10 others could expand their nonnative range, prey on native fish, compete with native fish for food and habitat and pass along harmful diseases and contaminants to other fish and even humans.

“This ban is proactive,” Hamilton said. “It came after a scientifically based risk assessment and it’s protecting us so we don’t have to deal with another Asian carp, another round goby.”

The US ban, which took effect on Oct. 31, 2016, prohibits the import and interstate transport of the animals for the pet trade, aquaculture or other purposes. (For more information on Canadian and US efforts to combat invasive species, see “Keeping Aquatic Invaders Out: Pathways and Roadblocks.”)

That means, if someone tried to ship the live animals to the US, they’d be stopped by customs agents, Hamilton said. He added that Michigan passed a law in 2014 requiring similar risk assessments before new aquatic species can be imported.

Since the 1880s, more than 180 non-indigenous aquatic species have successfully established in the Great Lakes, Hamilton said. Of these, 28 percent came from “the organism in trade vector,” which includes releases through commerce such as live fish and bait, aquaculture, biological supplies, horticulture and aquariums.

While the most recent ban is laudable, it’s doesn’t solve the larger problem of keeping new invasive species out of the Great Lakes. Hamilton said public education, monitoring for new invasions and responding quickly also are essential.

“Prevention is No. 1, but No. 2 is monitoring and responding quickly if you find evidence of a new invasion,” he said. “We’re working with states to establish a regionwide monitoring system in the Great Lakes. It’s really important to have that in place.”

Jeff Kart is executive editor of the IJC’s monthly Great Lakes Connection and quarterly Water Matters newsletters.

Keeping Aquatic Invaders Out: Pathways and Roadblocks

The St. Lawrence Seaway was a major route for invasive species to enter the Great Lakes before a 2006 change in ballast water regulations
The St. Lawrence Seaway was a major route for invasive species to enter the Great Lakes before a 2006 change in ballast water regulations. Credit: Kunal Mukherjee

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

Quagga mussels. Hemimysis. Alewives. Sea lamprey. Phragmites. These are just a few of the more than 180 non-native species that have entered the Great Lakes basin over the past few centuries. They’ve come through canals, from ships, and escaped from gardens and other private lands. Managing existing populations of these creatures is difficult enough, but how are officials keeping new invaders out? It all depends on the species, the likeliest route for that species and how people could inadvertently transport them into the basin.

The single biggest pathway invasive species had in the past was hitching a lift inside the water-filled ballast tanks of ships crossing the ocean, according to Jeff Brinsmead, senior invasive species biologist with Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. Ballast water is necessary for maintaining a ship’s balance when cargo and fuel usage change its mass. For decades, ships could simply take on ballast water — with its sediments — in their home port and dump it when they arrived in the Great Lakes – inadvertently dropping dozens of species in a new ecosystem. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates about 30 percent of all invasive species in the Great Lakes arrived through ballast water. Not all non-native species are considered invasive; invasive species are a subset of that group whose introduction causes – or is likely to cause – economic or environmental harm, or harm human health.

A sea lamprey attached to a salmon caught in northern Lake Huron
A sea lamprey attached to a salmon caught in northern Lake Huron. Credit: M. Gaden/Great Lakes Fishery Commission

Transoceanic Invaders and the St. Lawrence Seaway

Some species introductions date back almost 200 years, like the parasitic sea lamprey who gained access to the upper lakes with the opening of the Welland Canal, bypassing Niagara Falls.  But it was the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959 that sparked a dramatic increase in the Great Lakes, Brinsmead said. Ballast water and invasive species was likely not something anybody involved with the seaway had thought about or considered when it was opened, and it took until 2006 for the United States and Canada to realize the extent of the problem and address it, he said.

That year, the St. Lawrence Seaway Corp. and Canadian government agreed to new regulations requiring ballast water to be exchanged in the open ocean before vessels enter the seaway, in line with proposed regulations by the International Maritime Organization and its International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast Water and Sediments. The EPA implemented similar measures that took effect on Jan. 1, 2016. Since 2006, only one new species has been confirmed in the Great Lakes, Brinsmead said: a tiny crustacean known as a copepod that may have already been in the Great Lakes prior to 2006 and went unnoticed. Researchers believe ballast water is how invasive species like zebra mussels, quagga mussels and Hemimysis – also called the “bloody-red shrimp” – entered the Great Lakes.

Moving Within the Basin as Hitchhikers

But while that may have slowed down new species from entering the Great Lakes, species already in the waterways still can inadvertently be moved to inland lakes or other parts of the Great Lakes. These pathways don’t require major shipping. A watercraft — be it a boat, kayak or Jet Ski, for example — moved from one body of water to another without amply being cleaned, drained and dried can bring tiny invasive passengers into a different body of water. That includes microscopic mussel larvae to invasive plant seeds. Anglers using nonnative bait can introduce those species into a new environment, whether by dumping them into the water system or through escapees. And people with home aquariums or gardens with nonnative plants and animals can accidentally allow them to spread.

Invasive Phragmites weeds, like these on the shore of Lake Huron in Lexington, Michigan, settle in wetlands and coastal areas, where they can quickly choke out native plants and ruin habitat for aquatic and terrestrial creatures
Invasive Phragmites weeds, like these on the shore of Lake Huron in Lexington, Michigan, settle in wetlands and coastal areas, where they can quickly choke out native plants and ruin habitat for aquatic and terrestrial creatures. Credit: Sara Hattie

To combat these pathways, Ontario and the Canadian government use a combination of educational outreach and regulations, including the Ontario Invasive Species Act, which came into force in November 2016. Under that act, 16 species including round goby, Asian carp and northern snakehead are prohibited from being brought into the province, while plants like Phragmites or Japanese knotweed are restricted – people with those plants on their property won’t be penalized, but they can’t be bought, sold or traded. Brinsmead said Canada encourages people to use native and non-invasive plants for their gardens as replacements.

In the United States, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) uses several national laws and executive orders to manage invasive species, alongside state-level regulations and activities. Much like Ontario, US officials recommend cleaning, draining and drying boats traveling to different water bodies. Under the Lacey Act, USFWS also can determine the risk factors of bringing specific nonnative species in commercially to convince the animal trade industry to refrain from bringing in specific species; they can also prohibit species entirely from crossing national or state lines.

Asian Carp and Electrical Barriers

Asian carp remain a major concern for Canadian and US officials. In addition to monitoring the lakes for their presence through “environmental DNA” and netting trawls, US agencies are trying to improve ways to keep them from getting into Lake Michigan via the Mississippi River. Currently the river is separated from the lake with three electrical barriers in the Chicago Area Waterway System, which maintain electric fields in the water to drive fish away.

Research is also underway on other methods to discourage carp from entering Lake Michigan through that pathway. The carp are about 45 miles (72 kilometers) away from Lake Michigan behind both the electric barriers and three lock and dam barriers. But officials throughout the basin are taking the threat seriously following a 2012 Illinois-based federal district court ruling that the canal should not be permanently closed, a ruling later upheld in an appeals court. There have been tests suggesting the barriers lose some of their potency when ships are moving through them toward the Mississippi River, so fine-tuning the system continues.

The Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee released its 2017 Action Plan in January, with a list of proposals including a new electric barrier in the Chicago canal, additional monitoring and continued development of new control measures.

Given the costs of managing invasive species and the damage they can do to their newfound ecosystems, keeping new ones out is an important job for everyone, from individuals and communities to businesses and governments.

US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration invasive quagga mussels Lake Ontario
Researchers from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration pull invasive quagga mussels out of Lake Ontario during a trawl. Credit: NOAA

Managing Products From Start to Finish

solar panels epr
Solar panels containing the toxic metal cadmium can be recycled at the end of their lifespan under an initiative from First Solar, removing the cadmium for reuse. Credit: Lyndsey Manzo

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

The traditional view of the manufacturer that creates a product and then leaves the rest of its life cycle up to consumers is giving way to a new reality of what’s known as “extended producer responsibility.” A growing number of companies are working toward more recycling and proper disposal of items ranging from light bulbs and computers to cars to keep toxic or precious components out of the landfill.

Thanks in part to new regulations in Canada and the United States, companies are looking at their supply chains and products from the start of manufacturing to their disposal, according to Dr. Greg Keoleian, director of University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems. In Canada, these programs fall under provincial jurisdiction, with the Ontario Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Program covering the Great Lakes. In the United States, these programs are covered by states. In the Great Lakes region, New York and Illinois have a greater number of laws addressing “e-waste” recycling and disposal bans than others like Ohio, which have none. There also are voluntary national programs in the United States, while some items are covered nationally in Canada.

For example, Keoleian said solar panel manufacturer First Solar – which has a manufacturing plant in Perrysburg, Ohio – uses cadmium in the construction of its panels. Cadmium is a toxic metal, so one could argue, he said, that it might not be considered an environmentally responsible source of electricity. First Solar has a commitment to take the panels back at the end of their life cycle and recover the cadmium, Keoleian explained, preventing that toxic substance from getting into the Great Lakes environment. In contrast, he added, a coal-fired power plant produces toxic emissions that are a significant source of contamination of mercury, heavy metals and acid gases in the basin.

“Even though their technology involves a very toxic chemical, they’re actually reducing the emissions of that pollutant by displacing fossil electricity, and they also have a management system to take their product back and do it responsibly,” Keoleian said. Further, he said that material and energy recovery should be emphasized in the product design process. Combining extended producer responsibility measures with sustainable supply chain management strategies would advance the concept of the “circular economy,” which conserves resources and limits waste and emissions throughout a product’s life cycle.

Automobile companies typically recycle vehicles that have reached the end of their life cycle too, using shredders, magnets and other separation processes to pull metals like steel, iron, aluminum, copper and zinc out for recovery. In total, he estimates about 80 percent of a car or truck ends up recycled. The remaining 20 percent is largely made up of plastics and rubber, and the auto industry is researching new ways to efficiently recover those portions for reuse. Home appliance manufacturers of goods like refrigerators and dishwashers also shred worn out units to recover as much as they can, Keoleian said. Fritz Enterprises, Huron Valley Steel and Padnos are examples of key recyclers in Michigan.

In some cases, manufacturers may not be directly involved in recycling used products but other entities are. With incandescent light bulbs being phased out, their replacements have largely come from compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) or light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs. The CFL bulbs contain some mercury, another toxic metal, which makes them unsuitable for being simply tossed in the trash when they burn out. Storefronts like Lowe’s and Home Depot will take those used bulbs for recycling, so the mercury can be safely removed. In Canada, stores like Lowe’s also take used CFLs under Ontario’s Take Back the Light initiative.

cfl bulb
CFL light bulbs contain mercury, so stores have recycling programs to keep the toxic metal from reaching landfills. Credit: Jose Ibarra

By keeping these materials out of landfills, companies and regulators can reuse them elsewhere and help prevent them from leaking into the environment, causing health risks for people and wildlife. As the governments seek to honor the goals of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, these programs are one way of doing it.

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.

Building a Water Trail for the Lake Superior Community

lake superior kayakers water trail
Lake Superior kayakers near Rossport, Ontario. Building the Lake Superior Water Trail is about creating a recreational corridor and a constituency of Lake Superior users that can act as stewards for the lake. Credit: Gary McGuffin

By Joanie McGuffin, Lake Superior Watershed Conservancy

Editor’s Note: The author will be one of the presenters at a March 2 public input session in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, on the governments’ Progress Report of the Parties, the IJC Triennial Assessment of Progress and the public’s concerns about the lakes.

The Lake Superior Water Trail encircles the greatest expanse of freshwater on Earth. It is an ancient heritage highway in existence since the glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago, and in use from the first time people first set watercraft afloat to travel, trade and hunt. People living around Superior have a common bond – the physical and spiritual presence of freshwater so vast that it reaches to the horizon just as an ocean does. It is only in recent times that people have thought about paddling the Lake Superior Water Trail as a recreational pursuit.

The Lake Superior Watershed Conservancy (LSWC) is an international charitable organization in Canada and the United States that represents the health and well-being of the Lake Superior watershed. The organization’s mission to protect the lake’s ecosystem begins with the understanding that the water is all connected and what you do in one place affects another. LSWC understands that we need to talk and share ideas and solutions through science, education, culture and recreation. But that is easier said than done. What common bond could connect a lakewide community in a collaborative, cooperative, loving way? LSWC could think of no better thread than the Lake Superior Water Trail.

In 1989 when my husband Gary and I paddled around Lake Superior, we met only a handful of paddlers in Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands. Paddling had not yet become the activity it is today even in beautiful national parks like Pukaskwa and Pictured Rocks. The Inland Sea Society convened an informal paddler’s gathering to discuss a lake-wide trail that fall. In subsequent years, different initiatives evolved into a number of sections like the Minnesota Lake Superior Water Trail, the Wisconsin Lake Superior Water Trail, the Keweenaw Water Trail and the Hiawatha Water Trail. But there was a lack of connectivity around the lake and a huge gap on the Canadian side that had no water trail designation at all. So in 2014, when Trans Canada Trail  approached LSWC about helping to complete the Lake Superior gap in a nationwide trail building effort, LSWC jumped at the chance.

peninsula harbor marathon ontario
Peninsula Harbour, Marathon, Ontario. The community is re-inventing itself after the pulp and paper mill was dismantled. Credit: Gary McGuffin

Building the Lake Superior Water Trail  between Gros Cap Harbour and Thunder Bay will create a 1,000-km/600-mile link in a 24,000-km/15,000-mile nationwide Great Trail and serve as a critical link in an international “Appalachian Trail of Water Trails” encircling the circumference of the greatest freshwater lake on Earth. In so doing, this common thread would have the potential to knit together a lake-wide community of small villages, First Nations and Tribes, and local, state, provincial and national parks.

The strategy developed by LSWC in partnership with Trans Canada Trail Ontario led to 16 priority access points with varied partners including two Ontario parks, Pukaskwa National Park, two lighthouses, the First Nations community of Biigtigong and Lake Superior municipalities from Gros Cap to Thunder Bay. Funding provided by the Trillium Foundation enabled LSWC to hire a Lake Superior Water Trail coordinator, and Trans Canada Trail National secured funding for the installation of universal access docks, washrooms and other amenities to support the development of the water trail and engage with the paddling community. Although the Lake Superior Water Trail on the Canadian side officially opens this year as part of Canada’s 150th birthday, it is an ongoing legacy project.

For the Lake Superior Watershed Conservancy, this is just the starting point in a lakewide connection of all the water trails on Lake Superior. Possibilities such as developing a lake-wide water quality monitoring program through the paddling community is one such project. What better group? Paddlers are everywhere. They come from all ages and walks of life. They travel close to the water. They move slowly, following the detail of shorelines as well as the rivers and lakes that feed Superior. They are sensitive to the look, the smell, the taste of the water, and instinctively know by direct contact that what goes into the water affects their own health. They notice changes over time.

Harnessing the observational powers of these Lake Superior citizens as lake stewards can build an invaluable coordinated database over time. Once people have the information, they will champion the changes necessary for their own well-being.

Lake Superior’s communities all need the economic diversity that the long-distance Water Trail can bring. The trail is a catalyst for story-telling, providing a necessary cultural shift to reconnect with Lake Superior and Mother Nature. This lakewide community can grow, providing instruction and guiding services, cultural appreciation and interpretation, as well as the necessary education and actions to preserve the Lake Superior ecosystem.

Joanie McGuffin is the Lake Superior Water Trail coordinator for the Lake Superior Watershed Conservancy and the author of eight books with her husband Gary including “Superior: Journeys on an Inland Sea” and “Paddle Your Own Kayak: An Illustrated Guide to the Art of Sea Kayaking.”

Sign In and Sound Off: Great Lakes Questions Need Answers

megaphone participateijc
Credit: Gary Knight

By IJC staff

Water doesn’t speak, but you can.

April 15 is the deadline for public comments on our Triennial Assessment of Progress Report and the Progress Report of the Parties.

That’s a mouthful, we know. The TAP report, for short, looks at the job the Canadian and US governments have done to meet requirements of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. The TAP includes a review of the Progress Report of the Parties, or PROP. As the Water Quality Agreement’s title suggests, this is a subject of upmost importance for anyone who lives in the Great Lakes basin, which supplies drinking water, recreational opportunities like swimming, fishing and boating, and countless other benefits.

How are the lakes doing? You tell us. The governments have released their status report, and we’ve assessed it in 84 exciting pages.

You don’t have to read the reports cover-to-cover. And you don’t need to travel to upcoming public meetings to add your voice. Of course, those who can attend March meetings in Ontario, Michigan, Ohio and New York and encouraged to come out. Those who can’t are encouraged to sign in and sound off on both reports. Go to ParticipateIJC.org.

We’ve summarized the TAP report’s key findings in an infographic. We’ve also come up with questions to help spur engagement. There’s an executive summary on pages 9-11.

draft tap infographic

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been enough engagement since the reports were released for public comment. You can help change that. Sign in, sound off, and speak out for water. Have the governments’ done something right? Tell us. Have they missed something? Tell us. If there a particular issue that needs more focus? Tell us. The people who live in the basin know it best.

The questions below may be a little bureaucratic (This is for the draft of an official TAP report that will be sent to two federal governments, after all). Feel free to interpret the questions widely; general comments also are welcome.

Here’s the schedule of the questions we’ll be posting in coming weeks at ParticipateIJC.org on the TAP report. Separately, you also can comment on the PROP report.

Invasive Species: The week of Feb. 13

  • Do you agree with this finding of successes and gaps in the Parties’ progress toward the achievement of this objective?
  • How could the Parties better harmonize permitting, remove administrative barriers and adopt an integrated approach to AIS management?
  • Are there other ways the parties could improve their binational approach to invasive species?

Human Health: The week of Feb. 20

  • Do you agree with this finding regarding lack of demonstrated progress toward achievement of the human health objectives and the need for greater binational focus?
  • What advice should the IJC give the Parties on how to increase the binational focus on human health?
  • What issues should the Parties address as a priority under an increased binational focus on human health?

Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement: The week of Feb. 27

  • Has the 2012 GLWQA affected you?
  • What was the most notable achievement of governments in the first three years of Agreement implementation?
  • What advice should the IJC give the Parties about how binational cooperation on Great Lakes issues can be maintained and expanded?

Nutrients: The week of March 6

  • Do you agree with this finding regarding the progress on nutrients?
  • What are other steps could the Parties take to remedy degraded water quality in western and central Lake Erie?
  • Are there other actions the Parties should take to address nutrients in the Great Lakes?

Pollutants: The week of March 13

  • Do you agree with this finding regarding the progress on CMCs?
  • How can the Parties improve their processes to designate CMCs and develop binational strategies for their control and/or elimination or generally increase their progress toward achieving the pollutants objective?

Process, Deadlines: The week of March 20

  • How do you benefit or could you benefit from these processes and procedures?
  • What principles and approaches from the GLWQA could be better institutionalized in the next work cycle?
  • What new deadlines should be set for work in the next triennial cycle(s)?

Areas of Concern: The week of March 27

  • Do you agree with this finding on progress in restoring AOCs?
  • What should the Parties learn from progress in AOC restoration?
  • How can this progress on AOCs be maintained or improved?

Reporting: The week of April 3

  • Do you agree with this finding on Great Lakes indicators?
  • What additional improvements could be made in Great Lakes reporting?

IJC Finds Successes and Challenges in Meeting Great Lakes Water Quality Goals

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

sherri mason suny fredonia microplastics niagara
Dr. Sherri Mason of SUNY-Fredonia led a survey of microplastics in the Great Lakes aboard the research ship Niagara in 2012. The tiny pieces of plastic are a growing environmental concern on the Great Lakes. Credit: SUNY-Fredonia

Coastal wetlands in the Great Lakes basin are recovering, providing habitat and natural water filtering along the shores. Areas of Concern that have long suffered from degradation and pollution are improving. Plans are being assembled to reduce nutrient inputs to Lake Erie and get a handle on algal blooms. New aquatic species have been kept out of the lakes, and an initial list of chemicals of mutual concern has been drawn up. Canada and the United States have made significant progress to restore and protect the lakes, even though there’s still a long way to go to meet the objectives of the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

These are key findings in a new draft Triennial Assessment of Progress report from the IJC. The Agreement requires the IJC to consider how well the countries are tackling a variety of issues in the Great Lakes every three years. The TAP report, now out for public input, paints a largely positive picture. Its findings are the result of work by the IJC, its Great Lakes advisory boards and the Progress Report of the Parties report, which Canada and the US released last September.

The final TAP, to be released in late 2017, is expected to contain recommendations and suggestions for efforts by Canada and the United States to safeguard the basin. The IJC is encouraging people from both countries to add their thoughts and comments on the TAP at ParticipateIJC.org and at a series of March public meetings (see “It’s Your Turn”) to help develop the final recommendations.

The 2012 Agreement includes a series of objectives to guide the two countries, eight states and two provinces on Great Lakes issues.

Drinking water and pollutants

The TAP reports few changes in the quality of the overall Great Lakes for swimming and other recreational uses. Waters were safe for swimming in 96 percent of the season in the US and 78 percent of the season in Ontario, giving people plenty of opportunities to enjoy the lakes without worrying about E. coli bacteria or algal blooms.

Moreover, the IJC found that source water from the lakes, when properly treated, is safe to drink, though there have been a few notable incidents. A 2014 “do not drink” advisory in Toledo, Ohio and Pelee island, Ontario, was directly related to Great Lakes water pollution when an unsafe level of the toxin microcystin was found in treated water during an algal bloom on Lake Erie. Other drinking water contamination incidents like the one in Flint, Michigan, where elevated lead levels leached into distribution pipes in 2015 because the water wasn’t treated with anti-corrosion measures, also help serve as a reminder that how drinking water is safely delivered to the people in the basin can be improved.

There has been some progress in improving or maintaining drinking water quality in the basin. Of the 10 Areas of Concern in the Great Lakes that had drinking water impairment issues – either consumption restrictions or problems with taste and smell – seven areas no longer experience problems, and officials expect two of the remaining three expect to no longer have problems in the next two-to-three years.

Additionally, the United States and Canada are working on groundwater quality studies to determine if groundwater supplies, which are generally good, are improving. This research also should give researchers a better idea of what impact groundwater quality and quantity has on surface water supplies in the basin. Since some communities and individual wells alike can depend on groundwater, making sure supplies are strong, recharging and clean from chemical pollutants is vital for public health. Ontario’s Clean Water Act mandates source water protection plans, while on the US side, states voluntarily can develop plans under the US Safe Drinking Water Act to keep hazardous chemicals out of drinking water.

Chemical pollution continues to threaten human and ecosystem health, and Canada and the US are lagging when it comes to addressing that issue in the Great Lakes. The TAP reports that toxic chemical concentrations are a mixed bag – some legacy chemicals are decreasing, while other chemicals seem to be on the rise that could spell major problems down the road. The countries designated an initial list of chemicals of mutual concern and are developing strategies to address them, but the list wasn’t finalized until last May and binational strategies to control them are behind schedule; pilot strategies for two of those identified chemicals are incomplete and the development process isn’t transparent to the public.

When it comes to chemicals in wildlife, the two countries have made strides in reducing the amount of legacy contaminants – like DDT or PCBs – in fish frequently consumed by people, but advisories have still been issued for some species and areas due to the presence of those legacy contaminants. Both countries continue to monitor levels of contaminants in Great Lakes fish that are generally eaten by humans, though more data is necessary to determine whether the two countries are making additional progress. This is especially important to communities that eat more locally caught fish than others, and to anglers who also enjoy eating what they catch.

rouge river detroit tap report industrial chemical
Industrial and chemical facilities along the Great Lakes waterways – including tributaries like the Rouge River in Michigan pictured above – have historically been key sources of chemical pollution into the lakes. Credit: EPA

Environmental conditions, climate change and nutrient runoff

Additional Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement objectives call for healthy and productive wetlands and charge the United States and Canada to protect and restore wetlands and other habitats across the lakes. The TAP report says that coastal wetlands are improving across the basin, providing habitat for a variety of native species and a protective barrier to reduce the amount of pollutants and nutrient runoff getting into the lakes.

This also supports another Agreement objective, to control nutrient runoff and associated algal blooms. According to IJC Biological Scientist Dr. Li Wang, the United States has provided habitat restoration funds to local organizations through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, while Environment and Climate Change Canada has used money from the Wildlife Conservation Fund to support almost 40 restoration projects in the basin. The recently approved Plan 2014 for regulating water flows through the Moses Saunders dam will also help restore an estimated 64,000 acres of wetlands around Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River that have been degraded under the previous water outflow management plans.

Nutrient runoff (mainly from agricultural sources) is a serious problem in all the lakes except Superior, and the IJC has found it’s getting worse. These nutrients contribute to unwanted algal blooms and lead to oxygen-poor zones, toxic waters and damage to the food web. The two countries have agreed to try and reduce nutrient runoff to Lake Erie by 40 percent by 2025 based on 2008 levels, and are developing action plans to reach that goal. Those plans are due by February 2018.

Those plans must be rigorous to achieve these reductions, but the plans being developed don’t do enough for wetlands restoration and construction to help reach the targets, according to the TAP. These blooms are particularly prevalent in Lake Erie, though they’ve appeared in locations throughout the Great Lakes, from Hamilton Harbour in Lake Ontario to Saginaw Bay in Lake Huron. The general public is advised not to swim or fish in waterways when regularly updated bulletins indicate it’s unsafe due to these blooms.

harmful algal bloom lake erie landsat
A harmful algal bloom spreads across western and central Lake Erie in October 2011. Nutrients running into the lakes and feeding algal blooms is one issue the United States and Canada are working on addressing. Credit: NASA Landsat-5

The Agreement states that the lakes should be free of new invasive species and the spread and impact of existing ones should be limited as much as possible. While the United States and Canada have been able to stop the introduction of invasive species into the Great Lakes by enforcing ballast water flushing requirements – based off of proposed International Maritime Organization standards – harmful species like Phragmites, zebra and quagga mussels continue to spread and wreak havoc on the native ecosystem. There’s no comprehensive estimate on the economic impact of these species, though it costs money to control sea lamprey in tributaries and clear mussels from infrastructure. Research in both countries is continuing to find new ways to contain and possibly eradicate these invasive species in a number of ways, including pheromones, electrical and acoustic barriers and chemical controls.

The TAP report covers other environmental concerns for the Great Lakes and the people and wildlife around them under the catch-all water quality objective of freeing the lakes of substances, materials “or conditions” that negatively impact the lakes.

Plastic debris known as microplastics can be ingested by animals, causing a variety of health problems that can make their way up the food chain to humans. Both countries have passed laws that will ban products containing microbeads, but these are only a small subset of all microplastics. More attention is needed to eliminate all/other degraded plastics from entering the lakes as a result of waste disposal choices.

Finally, climate change is leading to an overall downward trend in ice cover on the Great Lakes, which impacts the ecosystem and water levels throughout the rest of the year. Canada is developing climate change models specific to the Great Lakes region and the St. Lawrence River, but the IJC believes a binational, unified approach to adapting to climate change from the federal and regional governments is the best way forward and should be explored.

The TAP is the result of three years of work, and the first such report since the 2012 Agreement was signed. The Commission hopes that it helps guide and sustain progress for the years to come as the governments work to restore the integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes.

wetlands ontario natural barriers pollutants
Wetlands such as the one in Batchawana Bay, Ontario, are important natural barriers for pollutants entering the Great Lakes, and have been improving in recent years. Credit: IJC

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.

It’s Your Turn: Tell Us What You Think About IJC’s TAP Report and Progress to Restore the Great Lakes

By Sally Cole-Misch, IJC

The Canadian and US governments presented their progress report last fall on efforts to restore the Great Lakes by meeting the goals of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. The IJC has now released its initial assessment of that progress in a draft Triennial Assessment of Progress report. The TAP report was released in draft form so we can hear from you before it becomes a final report to both countries.

shores lake superior tap
The shores of Lake Superior. Credit: Dean Pennala – Fotolia

“Now that the IJC has released its draft assessment of progress report, we’re eager to hear from Great Lakes residents,” US Commissioner Rich Moy said at the time of the report’s release.

There are several ways you can contribute to the IJC’s assessment of progress to restore and protect the Great Lakes. You can tell us what you think of the draft report’s findings and respond to its questions — and anything else that’s on your mind about the lakes — via email to ParticipateIJC@ottawa.ijc.org and online at ParticipateIJC through April 15, 2017.

You’re also invited to attend a public outreach meeting that the IJC will host in six communities in March. In addition to hearing your thoughts and comments, local experts will present the latest information on specific issues in each location – including the successes and challenges still to be faced – to ensure a broad conversation about the lakes.

“We strongly encourage everyone to provide their input or participate in an upcoming public meeting,” said IJC Canadian Chair Gordon Walker. “Public input is essential to Agreement success.”

Public meeting dates and locations include:

  • Thursday, March 2: Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
  • Tuesday, March 21: Detroit, Michigan
  • Wednesday, March 22: Sarnia, Ontario
  • Thursday, March 23: Toledo, Ohio
  • Tuesday, March 28: Buffalo, New York
  • Wednesday, March 29: St. Catharines, Ontario.

Details for each meeting will be provided in early February at Participate IJC, on the IJC website, in next month’s issue of Great Lakes Connection, and on our Facebook and Twitter pages.

Be part of the conversation by telling us how you value the Great Lakes ecologically, culturally, economically and personally, and about the commitment you and your community share to restore and protect these precious waters.

What do you think about Canada and the United States’ progress to accomplish the Agreement’s goals and objectives, and about the IJC’s draft assessment of that progress? Your voice is essential to ensure that both countries continue to make progress. The floor is yours.

Sally Cole-Misch is the public affairs officer at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on Jan. 30, 2017, to reflect a date change to the Toledo meeting.

The Great Lakes Eight: Greatness Art Project Spans Ontario

By Karen Kun, Waterlution

Great Art for Great Lakes (GAGL) is the first project under the “Greatness” banner and is being delivered by Waterlution, a nongovernmental organization based in Oakville, Ontario. Great Arts for Great Lakes will invoke the power of the arts in strengthening Ontarians’ understanding of and attachment to the Great Lakes, by celebrating the lakes through a variety of artistic means.

GAGL is a two-year project that involves a series of arts and learning workshops focused around eight Great Lakes communities. Commissioned artists will co-create artworks with communities that build up toward celebrating the 150th anniversary of Confederation (creating both Canada and Ontario) and produce a lasting digital showcase.

Proposals are still being accepted for the first eight artists. The ninth art project has been commissioned to two Kingston-based artists, who will create a digital showcase called Community Flow that will combine Great Lakes scientific data and small art pieces produced at the local workshops.

great lakes art project waterlution
Credit: Waterlution

The Great Art for Great Lakes project grew from a June 2015 session in which a diverse group of prominent Ontarians drawn from the arts, science, media, design, First Nations, business, environment, culture, youth and sport communities was convened by Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell of Ontario.

During that session, Dowdeswell invited participants to explore how celebrating the Great Lakes can help protect their service to the environment, people and economy, while engendering a stronger sense of identity and pride in our citizens.

The group concluded that a “bold and noble” initiative was needed to champion the importance and value of the Great Lakes, to provide a window on all that is being done and can be done for them, and to make the Great Lakes iconic for the people of Ontario, across Canada and around the globe.

GAGL is grateful to have support from the Ontario Trillium Foundation and is a featured Canada 150 project to showcase community engagement throughout this sesquicentennial year. Waterlution will work with local artists to co-create Great Lakes stories with one art project per community throughout 2017.

Communities will be invited to learn about the Great Lakes and offer inspiration to the chosen artists during workshops, to ensure that the art piece created truly represents the many cultural and historical aspects of the region.

Waterlution is working with municipalities to donate these creations to an appropriate permanent space for future generations, such as local art galleries, colleges or municipal properties.

The project will expand into other Great Lakes communities in 2018-2019 to include all five Great Lakes and develop partnerships in the United States and Quebec.

At this time, Ontario focus communities are Kingston, Toronto, Hamilton, Sarnia, Owen Sound, communities of Manitoulin Island, Mississauga and Thunder Bay.

great lakes communities map
Credit: Waterlution

There are many ways to get involved with GAGL in 2017. If you live in any of the communities noted, workshops are available this spring. The Call for Artists will open on Jan. 20, 2017.

Please contact Project Leader Christopher McLeod at chris.mcleod@waterlution.org for more details.

Karen Kun is the founder of Waterlution and co-founder of Greatness The Great Lakes Project. Follow the project on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for updates.