Eight Ways to Assess the Health of the Great Lakes

By Ankita Mandelia
Sea Grant Fellow
IJC Great Lakes Regional Office, Windsor, Ontario

To assess progress toward improving water quality, scientists use ecosystem indicators to measure whether things are getting better, worse, or staying the same.

The IJC’s Great Lakes Science Advisory Board is completing a process to identify a subset of 16 indicators that can be used to communicate progress toward improving the health of the Great Lakes. That list is pared down further to eight indicators – the fewest that tell us the most – that address biological, chemical and physical integrity:

Eight indicators Great Lakes Science Advisory Board

How can examining these indicators provide useful information on how the Great Lakes are doing?

Take, for example, chemicals of mutual concern in water. This indicator measures the concentrations of legacy chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyl compounds (PCBs), mercury, and flame retardants.

Concentrations of these chemicals in water are measured at strategic locations on regular time intervals within the basin. From the measured data, trends and patterns can be determined; such as whether the presence of a chemical is increasing or decreasing over time; or if the chemical is more highly concentrated in the water closer to or further away from land.

These chemicals of mutual concern in water matter because their concentration can give us insight as to where chemicals in an ecosystem came from and where they are headed. Models can be used to help pinpoint if a particular chemical is coming into the lake from a local or a global source, which occurs when contaminants are transported through the atmosphere.

For example, in Lake Erie, we know that relatively local sources (tributaries) are responsible for much of the pollution in the lake. We know that Lake Superior tends to be affected more by global pollutants transported through the atmosphere. Models also can be used to estimate what chemical concentrations might be in endpoints such as drinking water and fish, which are consumed by humans and other animals. Ultimately, this information is useful for telling people if the lake (or areas of the lake) is safe for drinking, swimming, and fishing, and whether or not the status is improving over time.

Figures 1 and 2 provide information on mercury in the Great Lakes. Mercury is on the two governments’ proposed list of Chemicals of Mutual Concern. In the upper Great Lakes, the source of mercury is precipitation; in the lower lakes, the source of mercury is industrial activity and watershed runoff.

This is one example of the Board’s work on how to communicate the indicators of Great Lakes health. The Board’s report on this study will be available on the IJC website in the coming weeks.

The IJC’s role under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement is to analyze information provided by the governments, assess the effectiveness of programs in both countries and report on progress toward meeting the Agreement’s objectives.

mercury cycle
Figure 1. The mercury cycle. Credit: Biodiversity Research Institute; Great Lakes Commission; University of Wisconsin La Crosse


source contribution mercury great lakes sediment
Figure 2. Relative concentrations of mercury sources. Credit: USGS

See also:  16 Ways to Measure the Health of the Great Lakes

What’s your Great Lakes story?

Those of us lucky enough to spend time around the Great Lakes develop a personal connection to them. Their beauty, immensity, a particularly beautiful beach or rock cove, a fun experience on or in the water — these memories are what connect us to the lakes.

These emotional and cultural connections are called watermarks, which like birthmarks become part of who we are. The Watermark Project of the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper collects, archives and shares stories about the ways people use and value bodies of water that have been important in their lives. The International Joint Commission (IJC) is proud to partner with the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper to collect and publish a special Great Lakes Watermark collection.

The IJC is collecting Great Lakes stories in video and written formats. By way of introduction, we invite you to listen to the Watermark stories of IJC Co-Chairs Lana Pollack and Gordon Walker. We also encourage you to follow our Great Lakes Connection newsletter for opportunities to contribute to the project.

Everyone has a Great Lakes story … what’s yours?

All About the Lake Erie-Niagara River Ice Boom

By Andrew Kornacki
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Buffalo District

Thanks to the annual installation of an ice boom for the winter, large masses of ice are kept from flowing down the Niagara River, protecting property, the shoreline, and preventing water intakes from jamming at hydroelectric plants.

The Lake Erie-Niagara River Ice Boom has been installed each fall since 1964 to accelerate the formation and stabilization of the natural ice arch, and reduce the frequency and duration of ice runs from Lake Erie into the Niagara River.

By reducing these ice runs, or ice floating down river, the boom diminishes the probability of large-scale ice blockages. These blockages in the river can cause flooding, damage to shoreline property, and a reduction in flow of water to the hydro-electric power plant intakes down river near Niagara Falls.

The boom’s goals can be challenging during the winter months, when sub-zero temperatures produce an ice cover on Lake Erie that can be pushed around by winds to produce ice accumulations of up to 12 feet thick.

The IJC’s International Niagara Board of Control monitors the installation and removal of the ice boom as mandated by the IJC’s 1967 Order of Approval.

A working committee of personnel from the U.S. Army Corps Engineers, Buffalo District; Environment and Climate Change Canada; New York Power Authority; and Ontario Power Generation (OPG) assists in the effort.

ice boom install
The New York Power Authority and Ontario Power generation install the ice boom in December 2015. Credit: Paul Pasquarello, NYPA

The ice boom is owned and operated by the New York Power Authority and Ontario Power Generation and both are responsible for its installation and removal. The ice boom was constructed using timbers. It was fully converted to steel pontoons for the 1997-98 ice season. Converting to steel pontoons improved the ice boom’s buoyancy, making it more resistant to ice overtopping it, and reduced maintenance costs.

The ice boom consists of 22 spans. The first four are located between Buffalo Harbor’s inner and outer breakwater, and constructed using 16, 15-foot-long mini pontoons. The remainder of the boom is constructed using a series of steel pontoons each 30-feet-long and 30 inches in diameter.

Each span is built using up to 10 pontoons, anchored to the bottom of the lake at 400 foot intervals by 2.5 inch steel cables. When in position, the 8,800-foot ice boom stretches across the outlet of Lake Erie, just southwest of the city of Buffalo’s water intake crib.

ice boom map lake erie buffalo
When in position, the 8,800-foot ice boom stretches across the outlet of Lake Erie, just southwest of the city of Buffalo’s water intake crib. Credit: 2015 ice boom report

Under the IJC Order of Approval, installation of the ice boom can begin as early as Dec. 16 or when Lake Erie water temperature, as measured at the city of Buffalo’s water intake crib (at a depth of 30 feet), reaches 39 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Order of Approval also requires that the ice boom be removed by April 1. However, its removal may be delayed if the ice cover in the eastern section of Lake Erie is greater than 250 square miles or the downstream conditions would be negatively impacted by the boom’s removal.

Ice monitoring efforts by the working committee include helicopter flights on the eastern end of Lake Erie to determine the thickness of the lake ice. Observation of ice cover through satellite imagery, information from the Canadian and U.S. National ice services, and ice survey flights conducted over Lake Erie using a fixed wing aircraft are other methods used to determine when the ice boom can be removed.

The average opening date for the ice boom is April 3. The earliest it has been opened was Feb. 28, 2012, and the latest May 3, 1971.

During the 2015-16 season, the boom was installed on Dec. 16 and removed on March 8.

measure ice thickness lake erie
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Buffalo District, and Environment Canada took a helicopter out onto Lake Erie to measure actual ice thickness at six preselected locations in 2015. Credit: Andrew Kornacki

This article is reposted from the IJC’s Water Matters blog. You can subscribe to the monthly Great Lakes Connection newsletter or the quarterly Water Matters newsletter at this link

Panelists Focus on Lessons Learned from Poll and Connecting Citizens to Great Lakes

By IJC Staff

“There’s a difference between someone knowing the names of the five Great Lakes and actually knowing them. That’s what we need to focus on.”

The words come from Frank Ettawageshik, a new member of the IJC’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board and executive director of the United Tribes of Michigan. And they sum up the theme of a public panel discussion held by the Board in late April as part of the IJC’s Semi-Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.

great lakes public opinion poll water quality board
An infographic summarizing highlights of the Great Lakes poll.

A standing-room-only audience listened as Ettawageshik, Board member and Lake Ontario Waterkeeper Mark Mattson, Michigan Economic Center Director John Austin and IJC Public Affairs Officer Frank Bevacqua discussed the essential lessons and direction provided by the results of the Board’s public opinion poll about the Great Lakes.

The survey of nearly 4,000 Great Lakes basin Canadian and American residents revealed the public’s perceptions on important issues in the Great Lakes such as environmental health, threats to the lakes, and reasons for protection, with no great differences of opinion on any topic along national lines.  Panelists focused on four key messages from the survey:

▪           Strong support for protecting the Great Lakes unites people in Canada and the United States and every generation. “There’s an entire generation that was told that the lakes are dirty, from Lake Erie catching on fire in the 1960s to the high levels of toxic contamination in urban areas in the 1980s and ‘90s,” said Austin. “But we’ve come a long way, with eagles nesting in more and more places around the lakes, and people are recognizing this.”

Mattson echoed Austin’s sentiments by focusing on the need to now “flip the switch” and understand how important it is to provide ways for people to reconnect to the lakes. “If people don’t have the chance to be near or in the water, they don’t create the relationship that’s vital to wanting to learn and do more to protect the Great Lakes. We have the technology and we know how to clean up our beaches so they have the chance to be on the lakes.”

panel discussion great lakes public opinion poll
Frank Ettawageshik, left, and John Austin at the panel discussion. Credit: IJC files

▪           Public awareness of the issues facing the lakes is not as high as public support for protecting the Great Lakes. Poll respondents were uncertain whether the lakes were getting better or worse in terms of health, and at least 30 percent had trouble naming a specific issue facing the lakes. More than 70 percent were not aware of specific policies to protect the lakes. Panelists pointed to the need for broader efforts from all levels of governments and Great Lakes organizations to provide the scientific information necessary to educate citizens about issues facing the lakes, and how they can participate in the process. “And we have to act in our own communities to help others understand our place in the ecosystem,” Ettawageshik said.

▪           Everyone has a role to play in protecting the Great Lakes. Seventy-eight percent of survey respondents believe that the individual can play a key role in protecting the lakes through daily personal actions and votes, regardless of their political leanings. “A new generation is focused on sustainable everything,” said Austin. “They understand the value of protecting the resources we have. If the message and request for funding is packaged correctly, they will support it.”

▪           The poll provides valuable lessons and direction for the future. “The survey shows that there’s great value in connecting with the positive emotions people share for the Great Lakes,” said Bevacqua. “The IJC’s and the region’s collective communications efforts must connect the latest scientific findings to things people care about in a way that shows how people can help restore and protect the lakes they love.”

The Great Lakes Water Quality Board intends to repeat the survey periodically to provide even more valuable information on trends in attitudes and values about the Great Lakes over time. Look for more details from the first survey’s results in future editions of Great Lakes Connection.

david ullrich great lakes public opinion poll discussion
David Ullrich, U.S. co-chair of the Great Lakes Water Quality Board, asks a question during the discussion. Credit: IJC files


Millennials Pessimistic but Eager to Participate in Great Lakes Issues and Protection

By Christine Indrigo
Former Intern, Great Lakes Regional Office, Windsor, Ontario

In the Great Lakes Water Quality Board’s recent public opinion survey, millennials – those between the ages of 18 to 34 – made up more than 1,200, or 30.6 percent of respondents. Given that this generation will increasingly become responsible for restoring and protecting the Great Lakes, how do they feel about the status of the lakes?

This group had the most negative opinion of trends in the environmental health of the Great Lakes, with 32 percent saying the lakes’ health is deteriorating – the highest of all age groups. More than 80 percent believe it is important that the United States and Canada cooperate and work together to deal with Great Lakes issues, and more than half of respondents felt more policies and regulations are needed to protect the lakes. They and those aged 55-64 are most aware of the IJC.

millenials great lakes public opinion poll sidebar
Millenials are those ages 18 to 34. Credit. Ted Eytan

A large percentage of millennials also believe it’s very important for individuals to play a role in protecting the health of the Great Lakes basin. They believe being educated and informed is one step in protecting the lakes, and are most likely to take action through political lobbying and voting.

More than half of respondents between the ages of 18-34 said they were interested or very interested in news and information related to issues affecting the Great Lakes. Unsurprisingly, millennials answered social media and the internet more than any other age group as to where they prefer to get information about the Great Lakes and environmental issues. This statistic reinforces the usefulness and importance of the IJC and other Great Lakes organizations using social media to spread news on Great Lakes issues and to help future scientists, policymakers and citizens become involved in the protection of the Great Lakes basin.

The IJC is active on social media channels including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn, sharing news and information on IJC activities and environmental issues in the Great Lakes basin and across other transboundary waters.


Reasons to Snuff Out Harmful Flame Retardants in the Great Lakes

By the IJC Water Quality Board
Legacy Issues Work Group

fire pbdes illustration
Credit: Robert Couse-Baker

Flame retardants, made of up chemical compounds, have been widely used in an array of products since the 1970s. Some early flame retardants that were highly toxic were replaced by polybrominated diphenyl eithers or PBDEs. But health concerns related to PBDEs also have raised questions about how such chemicals are regulated.

You can find PBDEs in building materials, electronics, furnishings, motor vehicles, plastics and textiles. Studies have raised concerns about the adverse impacts of these compounds in the environment.

To assess how well governments and others are dealing with this problem, the IJC’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board directed its Legacy Issues Work Group to investigate and report back to the Board. Consultants assisted in the research.

The Legacy Issues Work Group addresses harmful, long-term aspects of historic human activity on the Great Lakes system.

All of the Great Lakes contain some levels of PBDEs, the report found, with Erie and Ontario having the highest concentrations in water. Despite phase outs of the manufacture and import of some PBDE chemicals by the Canadian and U.S. governments, products that contain the chemicals are still imported and widespread in the basin.

PBDEs are bioaccumulative, meaning they build up as they move through the food chain. Numerous studies have shown that exposure to PBDEs harms wildlife by increasing mortality rates, causing malformations, and impairing thyroid and metabolic systems.

Humans are exposed to PBDEs throughout their lives. We ingest them from eating meats, fish and dairy products and inhale them in dust at home and work from furnishings, electronics and textiles.

The report has been endorsed by the Board, is being reviewed by the IJC, and should be released in the near future. Watch for further information in upcoming issues of Great Lakes Connection, including possible recommendations to governments from the IJC.

lake erie aerial
Lake Erie from above. Credit: dwstucke





Rethinking Our Fisheries Management Strategy for Chinook Salmon

By Yu-Chun Kao
Research Associate
Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Michigan State University
East Lansing, Michigan

chinook salmon joe nohner
A Chinook salmon. Credit: Joe Nohner

In a paper recently published in the journal Ecosystems, my co-authors and I showed that the current prey base in Lake Huron can no longer support the same level of Chinook salmon that prevailed in the 1980s. Consequently, we indicated that the good old days of Chinook salmon fisheries are gone and will never return.

Results from this study also implied that Chinook salmon fisheries in Lakes Michigan and Ontario will possibly follow the same fate, because several food web changes associated with the Chinook salmon collapse in Lake Huron have already occurred in these two lakes.

Maybe it is time to rethink whether fisheries management in the Great Lakes should be focused on stocked exotic species that anglers desire, like Chinook salmon, or native species such as lake trout and walleye that are better adapted to changing ecosystems.

Chinook salmon and other fish in the salmon family were introduced to the Great Lakes 50 years ago to create recreational fisheries. The intent was to turn alewives from a nuisance fish to a food source for salmon. Alewives reached a nuisance level of abundance around 1960 and drew public attention after their decaying bodies fouled beaches after several massive die-off events.

alewives sampling survey 2004
Alewives from a sampling survey in 2004. Credit: Tim O’Brien


Introduced salmon soon adapted to feed on alewives and successfully created multi-billion dollar fisheries.

Because salmon populations are artificially maintained or supplemented by hatchery stocking, the potential for predator–prey imbalance has been a concern for researchers since the early 1980s. Such an imbalance finally occurred in 2003 when the alewife population collapsed in Lake Huron.

However, the cause of this collapse is complicated. Since the late 1980s, prey fishes such as alewives and rainbow smelt had been experiencing increased predation pressure and a food shortage. Consumptive demands by salmon species first increased due to rises in stocking in the 1980s and then jumped sharply with natural reproduction of Chinook salmon in the 1990s. On the other hand, the production of algae at the base of lake food webs decreased because of feeding by invasive quagga mussels and reduction in nutrients after abatement programs initiated in the 1970s.

The year 2003 is unique in the ecological history of Lake Huron. It is the year when quagga mussels were first found, in significant amounts, in the deep part of the lake. It is also the year when there was a historical low of the nutrient inputs from agricultural and municipal sources. Since then, quagga mussels have been expanding while nutrient inputs have stayed at similar low levels.

While Chinook salmon fisheries collapsed in Lake Huron following the collapse of alewife population, estimates for sport angler harvests of Chinook salmon were close to a historical high in Lakes Michigan and Ontario during 2005–2008, despite increases in consumptive demand by salmon, expansion of quagga mussels, and a reduction in nutrients.

Nevertheless, according to our study, there is a clear warning signal for Chinook salmon fisheries in Lakes Michigan and Ontario. Chinook salmon have feed almost 100 percent on alewives in recent years.

Before the 21st century, Chinook salmon feed on both alewives and rainbow smelt. Rainbow smelt have continuously decreased since the 1990s because they are more vulnerable than alewives to food shortage caused by nutrient reduction and quagga mussel expansion. If the condition of Lake Huron after 2003 occurs in Lakes Michigan and Ontario, alewife populations in these two lakes will likely collapse, as well as Chinook salmon fisheries.

With ongoing changes in the Great Lakes, it will be more and more costly to maintain Chinook salmon fisheries. We have observed decreases in the alewife population and Chinook salmon harvests in Lake Michigan since 2010 despite the same, if not higher, level of managing efforts. On the other hand, harvests on native species like lake trout and walleye, which are better adapted to a food web without alewives, increased drastically in Lake Huron in recent years.

Now is the time, in my opinion, to rethink our fisheries management strategies for the Great Lakes.

alewives annual bottom trawl sampling
Alewife sampling during an annual bottom trawl survey. Credit: Tim O’Brien



Getting Ahead of the Curve: Learning How to Manage and Reduce Microplastics in the Great Lakes

Updated: June 6, 2016

By IJC staff

Perhaps you’ve seen photos of the huge masses of garbage, mostly plastics, floating in the oceans. At least 100 studies have documented the amount and impacts of these materials in the ocean environment, and we know that plastics aren’t meant to be in the natural environment, in any form. But what do we know about plastics already in the Great Lakes, and how do we prevent them from getting into the lakes?

The IJC hosted a binational workshop in late April in Windsor, Ontario, to answer these and other questions about plastic debris and microplastics, in particular. Experts from Canada and the United States were brought together because we recognize this as an emerging issue that will require several solutions and coordinated efforts from all sectors of society. A technical workshop was held for two days, with an evening public panel discussion on April 26, 2016.

plastic microplastics microbeads
Plastics on a beach. Credit: 5Gyres

Microplastics are small particles (5 mm or smaller) created as larger plastic debris degrades, from items such as plastic bags, bottles, boxes, straws, fibers from synthetic fabrics, caps and lids, and cigarette butts. They also may enter the lakes as microbeads, which are found in cleansing products such as facial scrubs and toothpaste (Read more from our previous microplastics series). One study has shown that the largest percentage of plastics already in Great Lakes waters – 80 percent – are microplastic particles.

Plastic debris and its decomposed particles can last for years, decades and even centuries in water, and be ingested by aquatic organisms. This may lead to potential impacts on aquatic organisms and others in the food web.

walker windsor microplastics next steps
IJC Canadian Chair Gordon Walker (center) discusses next steps with workshop participants. Credit: IJC files

More than 35 experts from science, government, industry and citizen organizations gathered at our workshop in Windsor to consider what we already know about microplastics in the Great Lakes, and how the entire life cycle of plastic debris can be addressed to prevent new microplastics from reaching the lakes.

One presenter reported that, in the nearshore waters of lakes Ontario and Erie, the four main categories of microplastics found were fragments, microbeads, lines and fibers (see Figure 2). The presence and abundance of these materials can be influenced by winds, currents and rain storm events that can carry materials into the lakes. Polyethylene was identified as the dominant type of plastic found in the lakes.

categories potential sources microplastics microbeads plastics great lakes
Credit: Paul Helm, Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, April 2016

It was made clear by participants that not all scientific reports would come up with the same findings as Figure 2; however, workshop participants did agree that plastic particles do not belong in the Great Lakes and recognize that one pathway of plastic particles to the lakes is wastewater. When homes or industries wash these plastic particles down the drain, most wastewater treatment plants do not have the technology to remove them from their treated water discharge.

Both federal governments are researching the sources and effects of microplastics to develop policy and education programs that will curb the introduction of plastics into the lakes. At the same time, voluntary beach cleanup programs in Canada through the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup program and in the United States through the Alliance for the Great Lakes’ Adopt-a-Beach program confirm that waste left by beachgoers is another pathway of plastics into the lakes. Volunteers who clean beaches record the number and type of debris and thus contribute to scientists’ understanding of this pathway of plastics to the lakes.

In 2015, more than 6.3 million kg (7,000 tons) of debris was collected from 348 sites in the Adopt-a-Beach cleanups, with 85 percent of all debris items partially or fully composed of plastic. Tiny trash (25 mm or smaller) was the largest single category of debris – 33 percent of the total number of items collected. Of that, 88 percent were plastic and foam pieces. Similar results were found on the Canadian side, where more than 15,000 kg (16.5 tons) of waste was collected from 263 Great Lakes beach locations and all but two of the top 10 categories were plastic items.

shoreline cleanup beach cigarette butts
Credit: Susan Debreceni, Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, 2016

While a recent federal ban in the United States for rinse-off cleansing products and toothpastes that contain microbeads – as well as anticipated action in Canada – will address one component of microplastics pollution by reducing their introduction into the Great Lakes, workshop participants agreed that several additional efforts are needed to truly prevent the same level of microplastic contamination and negative impacts on the lakes that have already occurred in ocean environments. They are developing recommendations for the IJC to consider providing to the Canadian and the US governments concerning needs for research, plastic waste management, reduction and prevention, and education and outreach.

suggested recommendations microplastics technical workshop windsor
Participants at the technical workshop prioritize suggested recommendations on microplastics. Credit: IJC files

Workshop participants agreed that additional research and new policies to encourage better waste management throughout the Great Lakes region are needed. They also agreed that every citizen in the Great Lakes region can help to reduce the amount of microplastics entering the lakes by reusing, recycling, and carefully disposing of plastics. Workshop participants will be reviewing a draft report developed by IJC staff, with the Commission intending to possibly issue a series of recommendations to the governments by the end of 2016.

Now is the time to complete necessary scientific studies and embrace the precautionary principle by implementing policies that will prevent the Great Lakes from becoming the same repository for plastic debris as the oceans. Momentum has already been created to recognize this issue through the microbead bans and the Commission may issue its recommendations after more consultation with workshop participants.

What you can do:  In the meantime, here are just a few resources with more information and with some ideas proposed by other organizations that you can consider in your daily actions:

how to just say no to microplastics

for more information beat the microbead

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on June 6, 2016, to include additional information from speakers at the workshop and clarify points relating to how microplastics are categorized.



Welcome to Great Lakes Connection

Credit: Rodney Campbell

Welcome to the inaugural edition of Great Lakes Connection. The International Joint Commission’s new online newsletter is dedicated to bringing you the latest science on the health of the Great Lakes ecosystem in a clear, accurate and timely voice.

We invite you, our readers, to share your stories on the value the lakes have in your lives. By connecting knowledge of issues facing the lakes and their inherent value, we hope citizens throughout the region can consider how they can take personal and collective action to restore and protect our treasured Great Lakes.

Please subscribe to this newsletter by clicking on the subscription button, and share it widely with colleagues, family and friends.  If you have questions or suggestions for articles, please contact Executive Editor Jeff Kart at kartj@washington.ijc.org.

For the Great Lakes,

Lana Pollack, U.S. Chair

Gordon Walker, Canadian Chair