Fish Consumption Advisories Mean Watching What You Eat

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

Cisco – a pan fish – is a nutritious forage fish found in Lakes Superior and Huron that is generally considered safe to eat once a week. Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service

The Great Lakes have long been a source of nutritious food for people who live along its shores, with an abundance of aquatic life like walleye, yellow perch, catfish, and bass. This is still the case, though pollutants in the waterways mean anglers need to pay attention to what they eat and how often.

Harmful substances like mercury, dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have been entering the lakes for decades, where they make their way into the food web. New and emerging chemicals such as pharmaceuticals and the flame-retardant polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) also may be entering the food web. These can accumulate in fish and work their way up from preyfish to predators, posing a risk to human health. The province of Ontario and the eight Great Lakes states – Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York – issue fish consumption advisories to help residents know how much of any given species is safe to eat in a given timeframe. Eating more contaminated fish doesn’t mean health problems will develop in a person, just that it’s more likely.

Developing these advisory guidelines takes work in the field and the lab. Fish are collected by state or provincial agencies and tested for chemicals of concern in the meat, fat and other tissues, according to Jennifer Gray, a toxicologist with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The fish are prepared as if they were being eaten, such as if a particular species typically has the skin removed or the fat cut off.

Based on what substances are left, governments issue consumption guidelines. These can be different depending on where the fish was caught, as different locations have different amounts of contaminants. Since fish move throughout the water system without regard to political boundaries, however, an advisory in one area doesn’t mean fish from elsewhere, with different guidelines, aren’t also there.

“It really depends on where you are and the inputs (of pollutants) and what industries may have impacted the rivers, and all rivers flow to the Great Lakes,” said Michelle Bruneau, project manager and health educator with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Each state and province has its own methodology for consumption guidelines, she added, and while there are efforts underway to harmonize these practices Bruneau doesn’t believe all entities will adopt identical standards. Raw data is shared between governments, however – Ontario shares contaminant data collected by its scientists in the Great Lakes with the US states, who all share experiences on best ways of communicating advisories, said Satyendra Bhavsar, a research scientist with the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change’s (OMECC) fish contaminant monitoring program.

“We try to capitalize on advancements from both sides of the border,” Bhavsar said.

IJC’s Health Professionals Advisory Board noted in a 2014 report that risks and benefits should be considered when deciding to consume Great Lakes fish. Fish supply healthy unsaturated fats and high-quality protein, but may contain contaminants at high enough levels to impact human health. Common alternative foods to fish may provide health promoting nutritional value, but also saturated fats or sugars and contaminants of their own. These chemicals aren’t a reason to avoid the health benefits of eating fish from the Great Lakes, as long as consumers are aware of and use the guidelines available to help them choose and eat fish that are lower in contaminants.

Some chemicals like mercury, Gray said, collect more heavily in the meat of the fish, leaving few options to reduce the amount an angler would be eating. Dioxins and PCBs tend to collect more in the fat of a fish and can be reduced by cleaning away the fat, removing flesh around the belly area, and cooking the meat over a rack or grill so the remaining fat can drip away. The US National Cancer Institute warns not to let the flesh char while grilling, as that can cause compounds linked to cancer to form. And since contaminants tend to collect at the bottom of a waterway, Bruneau said people should check the consumption guidelines before eating bottom-feeding fish like catfish or drum.

Smaller walleye, although not a pan fish, still contain far fewer contaminants than larger ones, as they are younger and have had less time to accumulate substances like dioxins. Credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

One of the most helpful choices an angler can make is to choose smaller fish of a species. Bhavsar said a smaller fish is likely going to have significantly fewer contaminants than a larger one of the same species, as it’ll probably be younger and thus have less of an opportunity for these contaminants to accumulate in its tissues. Fish eggs can contain higher concentrations because of their higher fat content, he added, and should be avoided. Additionally, the province of Ontario recommends leaner fish from the Great Lakes, such as pike or walleye, and choosing panfish – fish that don’t grow larger than a standard frying pan.

In some places, guidelines are different for “sensitive populations,” such as children, pregnant women or women who could become pregnant, Bhavsar said. Excessive contaminants can impact a child’s development, or get passed along in the womb from a pregnant woman. In other areas, such as Michigan, guidelines take these populations into account when recommending serving sizes.

Having guidelines is one thing, but making sure people are aware of them is another. Thanks to Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funds, US states have been working to inform communities, recreational and subsistence anglers and vulnerable populations about the recommended limits on fish consumption. Bruneau said that this has included contacting community organizations that can spread the word, including working with tribal governments, Women, Infants and Children departments and sportsmen clubs to assist in their own areas.

In Ontario, Bhavsar said the ministry works with local health agencies – such as Toronto Public Health – and other stakeholders, and with First Nations communities to get the word out about the consumption advisories. Fact sheets are available in 17 languages, including English, French, Cree and Ojibwe, and written copies of the advisories are available for free through Service Ontario.

Another tricky area is fish purchased in a store, a farmers market or served in a restaurant. It’s often difficult to pinpoint where a particular fish was caught on the Great Lakes, and since each part of the lakes is unique in its degree and makeup of contaminants, it’s also difficult to say what specific guidelines would apply. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration is responsible for food labeling, and doesn’t have regulations in place for adding safety recommendations to labels, though it did release general advisories for children and pregnant women. Bruneau suggested following basic consumption guidelines is the best way to go in these cases. Bhavsar said local health agencies take the lead on purchased fish, like Toronto’s, but generally the province recommends people cut back one meal of wild-caught Ontario fish for every two meals of store-bought fish.

The concentrations of some of these chemicals are shrinking, but others remain problems. Bruneau said PCBs and dioxins have been regulated for years and are slowly dropping in concentrations throughout much of the Great Lakes, particularly thanks to work cleaning up Areas of Concern. Mercury – which is transported through the air into the water system via sources such as coal-fired power plants – and newly emerging chemicals such as PBDEs will most likely drive guidelines into the future, however. The costs for chemical testing can quickly add up when all the potential contaminants, locations and fish species are being accounted for, becoming prohibitively expensive.

Fish consumption guidelines for provinces and states in the region are linked below:

fatty fish
As a fatty fish, lake trout should be cleaned with as much of the fat removed as possible before eating to remove dioxins and PCBs. Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service

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

The IJC at International Association of Great Lakes Research Conference

By IJC staff

lake guardian
The Lake Guardian research vessel was anchored on the Detroit River during the International Association of Great Lakes Research conference, which took place in downtown Detroit from May 15-19. Credit: IJC

More than 1,000 scientists, educators, policymakers, academics, engineers and others descended upon Detroit, Michigan, from May 15-19 for the 60th annual International Association of Great Lakes Research (IAGLR) conference to discuss their latest findings and discoveries.

Attendees gave 20-minute presentations ranging from discussions on Lake Erie algal blooms and invasive species to updates on habitat restoration efforts and new technologies for management and research. IJC staff members were among those who participated.

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IJC Physical Scientist Matthew Child. Credit: IJC

Dr. Glenn Benoy, senior water quality and ecosystem adviser, spoke on the implications of Red-Assiniboine River basin nutrient models – created using a US Geological Survey modeling program – on Lake Winnipeg in Alberta. Physical Scientist Matthew Child presented an evaluation of the status of cleanup efforts in binational Areas of Concern.

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Michigan Sea Grant Fellow Allison Voglesong. Credit: IJC

Allison Voglesong, who has spent the last year at the IJC as a Michigan Sea Grant Fellow, gave a presentation on how to effectively connect with and identify audiences for science communications on social media.

Two keynote speakers presented before wide audiences in plenary sessions. Dr. Joan Rose, a member of the IJC’s Health Professionals Advisory Board and chair of Michigan State University’s water research program, talked about the science of water quality and how it relates to public health through contaminants, bacteria and viruses. Cameron Davis, vice president of GEI Consultants and former US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) adviser on the Great Lakes, talked about the “ecosystem” connections to the economy, politics, institutions and technology that all play a part in the health of the Great Lakes.

“We need to be a strong voice here for what we do with water,” Rose said in her remarks. “The water quality compact (between Canada and the United States) is among the strongest in the world – other places deal with water quantity but not quality, and we have a tremendous problem with waterborne diseases in the rest of the world.”

Tad Slawecki, a senior engineer with Limnotech, demonstrates the concept of an ecological “point of no return” using a ball and a two-section bowl during a talk on Great Lakes early warning systems. Credit: IJC

IJC staff members from its Windsor, Ottawa and Washington offices attended sessions throughout the week, and will provide highlights in coming issues of Great Lakes Connection.

The meeting took place at Cobo Hall next to the Detroit River, so attendees also had the chance to tour the EPA’s Lake Guardian, one of the largest research vessels dedicated to the Great Lakes. The ship travels across all five lakes for eight months each year, collecting water and plankton samples, and helping scientists with their research. The crew focuses on a different lake each year for the bulk of the ship’s time in the water, and Lake Huron is in the spotlight this year. (See also: “Lake Guardian Research Vessel Completes Summer Survey”)

IAGLR’s 61st annual conference will be held in Toronto, Ontario, in 2018.

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A tank of invasive sea lampreys found at one of the booths in a common area, where companies, government agencies and academic programs set up shop for attendees. Credit: IJC

Watermarks: Swimming Surprise, Fishing Legacy

Jeff Kart, IJC

In our travels to assess progress under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, we’ve met many interesting people. They have stories to tell about personal connections to the lakes … and its rivers, too.

Patty Troy starts out this month’s series of Watermarks. Troy tells of growing up along the St. Clair River, and memories of jumping off a pipe into the water. She didn’t find out until later that it was an outfall for combined sewer overflows.

The IJC is collecting video (and written) Watermarks as part of a project with Lake Ontario Waterkeeper.

In other Watermarks this month, Bob Dunn offers thoughts on Lake Huron and paints a grim picture of deteriorating conditions.

More upbeat is Candace Day Neveau, whose family has fished Lake Superior for generations. She looks forward to the day her son Maquinna takes over the family business.

You can find these and other Watermarks in our Great Lakes Connection archive, and submit yours here.


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


Sea Lamprey: The Greatest Invasive Control Success Story

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

sea lamprey
Sea lampreys are among the oldest invaders of the Great Lakes. Credit: C. Krueger, GLFC

An invader in a massive freshwater basin. An uncountable number of spawning grounds. A fishery on the brink. A desperate search for a solution that ended up becoming the most successful aquatic invasive species control team effort in American and Canadian history. It’s not a movie, but rather the true tale of the sea lamprey’s invasion of the Great Lakes.

The sea lamprey is parasitic fish native to the Atlantic Ocean. As an adult, it latches onto other fish with its suction cup-like mouth, using a rasping tongue to cut into its victim to suck out bodily fluids and blood. In the Atlantic it doesn’t typically kill its hosts, but the fish in the Great Lakes have no such luck. It’s estimated that a single lamprey can destroy an average of 18 kilograms (39 pounds) of fish in its parasitic lifetime, with only about one in seven fish surviving a lamprey attack. It’s not to be confused with native lamprey, which are smaller and have different coloration, and don’t usually kill the host fish.

Sea lampreys were first detected in Lake Ontario in 1835. While there has been discussion on whether it is native to Lake Ontario, it most likely is an invasive species that entered through the Erie Canal, according to Marc Gaden, communications director for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission (GLFC), a binational organization funded by the Canadian and US governments. The 1919 reconstruction of the Welland Canal, which bypasses Niagara Falls to connect Lake Ontario to Lake Erie, likely allowed the sea lamprey to enter Lake Erie and on to the rest of the basin. They were discovered in Lake Erie in 1921, Lake Michigan in 1936, Lake Huron in 1937 and Lake Superior in 1939. The sea lamprey found an immense number of tributaries featuring the combination of rocky nesting grounds to lay eggs and silt for larval lampreys to grow in, making the Great Lakes a lamprey Eden. In its native habitat, the sea lamprey spends most of its life in saltwater, making it the rare species that has adapted to living entirely in freshwater systems like the Great Lakes, similar to the Pacific salmon species introduced to control invasive alewives.

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A Lake Trout caught in Lake Huron with a sea lamprey attached. Credit: Marc Gaden, GLFC

The impact on the Great Lakes fishery was devastating. Prior to the invasion, about 20 million pounds or about 9 million kilograms of fish were harvested commercially each year in the upper Great Lakes – Superior, Huron and Michigan. By the 1960s that amount was reduced to about 300,000 pounds (136,077 kg) per year, while sea lamprey were killing close to 100 million pounds (45.4 million kg) of fish each year, and 85 percent of the remaining fish were scarred with lamprey attack wounds.

“Commercial fishermen and fishery managers first realized they had a problem around 1940, when it became clear what was happening to the Huron-Michigan fisheries from lamprey,” Gaden said. “That’s when the managers and scientists went into high gear and started seeking control measures.”

With little experience with aquatic invasive species, a wide variety of control methods were attempted. These methods included physical barriers to keep lamprey from entering the streams they use to spawn, crude electrical barriers to block their advances and sieves to stop larvae from eventually entering the Great Lakes from those inland streams. Entrepreneurs tried to make sea lamprey a commercially fished species for human consumption, but none of these attempts worked in stopping the sea lamprey.

The breakthrough came after years of searching for a chemical compound that would kill sea lamprey and not harm other organisms. A compound called TFM was discovered and field-tested in 1957, and entered management usage in 1958 through the binational GLFC. It has been used to great success.

The lampricide targets larval sea lampreys living in streams. After hatching from eggs found upstream in rocky areas, larvae make their way to silty areas and burrow into the substrate until they emerge as adults. The lampricide kills them in that weak, larval state by disrupting their metabolism before they can ever grow up to become the top predator in the Great Lakes. After decades of use, Gaden said the sea lamprey population in the Great Lakes has been reduced by about 90-95 percent from their peak in the late 1950s, and dropped the amount of fish killed by the lamprey to about 10 million pounds (4.5 million kg) a year. While it also affects native lamprey species, sea lamprey larvae tend to live and spawn in different areas from the native species; fishery managers focus on those stream areas where sea lamprey larvae burrow to minimize the impact on native species.

Dead sea lamprey larvae washed up on the shore of the Manistee River after a successful lampricide treatment. Credit: R. McDaniels, GLFC

Lampricide isn’t the only tool used to control lamprey numbers, Gaden said, as good pest control takes multiple tacks. Physical barriers are still in use to deny lampreys a path to their preferred spawning grounds. And if those lampreys can’t reach a place to spawn, there’s no need use lampricide treatments, which is expensive and time-consuming. The GLFC also deploys traps to catch lamprey entering or leaving the streams to remove them from the system, and has tested sterilizing male lamprey in the St. Marys River to try and overwhelm the number of fertile males. Most recently, Gaden said the GLFC “is on the cusp” of using isolated lamprey pheromones to affect their behavior – drawing lamprey away from ideal spawning locations and toward traps.

“We’re working on unlocking their genome,” Gaden said. “There are things within the lamprey genome we can exploit, like create conditions so they only produce males, but that’s further into the future.”

Mark Burrows, physical scientist and project manager in the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office, said the GFLC has sponsored important research devoted to controlling and eradicating sea lampreys while protecting native species, much of which was highlighted at the recent International Association for Great Lakes Research conference in Detroit.

“They deserve a lot of praise for the progress they have made in combatting this destructive invasive species, and I look forward to the GLFC forging another 10-fold decrease in lamprey numbers at some point in the future,” Burrows said.

While a focused and targeted approach to invasive species can work in smaller inland lakes, the size of the Great Lakes makes controlling aquatic invaders difficult. That they invaded a waterway that also serves as a border between Canada and the United States added an additional wrinkle. It meant both countries needed to work together, even though fishery management is primarily the domain of state, province, tribal and First Nation governments. This team effort has kept sea lamprey from completely dominating the ecosystem of the Great Lakes for decades.

lamprey traps
Sea lamprey traps are being tested in the field, set up in the Ocqueoc River in Michigan. Credit: T. Lawrence, GLFC

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


Hacking Away at Lake Erie Problems

By Paul Riser, TechTown Detroit

Not all hacking is bad. One of several Great Lakes regional efforts to find solutions to Lake Erie’s biggest problems took home two top awards at an Erie Hack Innovation Summit.

Erie Hack, “Innovate Around the Lake,” was a data and engineering competition uniting coders, developers, engineers, and water experts from Ontario and five US cities to generate enduring solutions to Lake Erie challenges, including harmful algal blooms.

Erie Hack included teams ranging from high-school students to seasoned professionals. The teams were charged with creating innovative digital tools, hardware innovations, and engineering solutions that build “the Blue Economy”: the emergent economic sector dedicated to the sustainable stewardship of bodies of freshwater around the globe.

In Michigan, Erie Hack Detroit began in the fall of 2016 by hosting a session of experts led by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and a web-based public portal that allowed the community to prioritize focus issue areas concerning the health of the Lake Erie basin. ­

From November through February, TechTown Detroit (and stakeholders in Buffalo, New York; Cleveland, Ohio; Erie, Pennsylvania; Toledo, Ohio; and Windsor, Ontario) engaged communities of software experts, hardware developers, designers, and entrepreneurs in their respective geographies. TechTown Detroit worked closely with Wayne State leadership who led efforts to leverage the energy of students, researchers, other Michigan academic institutions, and concerned citizens.

erie hack map
A map of teams in participating cities. Credit: Erie Hack

In the first week of March, the target groups initiated the Detroit Water Innovation Hackathon, hosted by the Detroit partnership and coordinated by the Cleveland Water Alliance. After local quarter-final rounds were held in each city, the Detroit-based partnership hosted another event as the winners of regional 2017 Water Innovation Hackathons came to Detroit in April to compete in an Erie Hack 2017 Semi-Final.  A panel of experts selected eight teams to advance to Cleveland for a May 2-3 Erie Hack Innovation Summit.

Four winning teams took home $100,000 in cash and prizes for their concepts.

The $40,000 cash grand-prize winner was Micro Buoy, a team from Wayne State University in Detroit. Its creation is a nano-sensor, contained in a buoy, that can detect environmental contaminants and help find pathogens in water. In addition, the team will receive more than $10,000 in support services to help commercialize its sensor.

Other winners were:

  • Second place: ExtremeComms Lab at the University of Buffalo, for an underwater wifi network to help detect toxic algae blooms and tsunamis.
  • Third place: Water Warriors at the University of Akron, for water testing kits that use light-filtering spectrometers to detect phosphorus and nitrogen in a lake.
  • Fourth place: Purily at the University of Michigan, which developed a system for people to track water usage in their homes and win prizes, such as restaurant coupons, for meeting conservation goals.
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Members of the first- and fourth-place teams. Credit: TechTown Detroit

The four top teams presented innovative solutions to Challenge Statements derived from the Cleveland Water Alliance (a network of corporations, academic institutions, and public agencies in Northeast Ohio) and partners in each of the six participating cities. Over the course of multiple months and ultimately at the May 2-3 Erie Hack finals, teams worked to solve problems such as nutrient loading and its environmental impacts, reducing urban pollution and managing aging water infrastructure systems.

In the future, Erie Hack Detroit hopes to play a critical role in a regional strategy to transform the quality of Lake Erie while building the base of a stable, water-centered economy for its inhabitants.

For more information on Erie Hack, see

Paul Riser is managing director of technology-based entrepreneurship at the nonprofit TechTown Detroit, Detroit’s longest-standing business accelerator and incubator.

Beach Read: Cyanotoxins in the Great Lakes

By Jennifer Boehme, IJC

“Cyanotoxins: Stay Away from Green Water” arrives just in time for the start of the Great Lakes beach season. The infographic offers key points and findings from a recent report by IJC’s Health Professionals Advisory Board. May 22-28 also is Healthy and Safe Swimming Week, a project of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

cyanotoxins infographic hpab
Click the image above for the full infographic

The IJC board report, “Science and Monitoring Assessment for Human Health Effects of Cyanobacterial Toxins in the Great Lakes Region,” describes health impacts that can stem from exposure to cyanotoxins, which may occur while swimming in areas affected by cyanobacteria blooms.

Blooms of cyanobacteria occur in warm waters with abundant nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen. Harmful algal blooms, or HABs, produce toxins that can cause health problems for humans, pets, fish, and wildlife. Different toxins that affect the liver, nervous system, and skin have been identified.

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Agricultural runoff and a harmful algal bloom on the Western Lake Erie shoreline, 12 miles east of Toledo. Credit: NASA

Blooms have been regularly found in the Great Lakes, inland lakes, and other places. HABs are occurring more often due to rising water temperatures, and heavy use of fertilizer on lands draining into streams and lakes. New species of cyanobacteria also are being found in the Great Lakes.

While the report’s findings focus primarily on strategies for improving drinking water, cyanobacteria blooms also invade beach areas with cyanotoxins and can make boating unpleasant. The public should be aware of potential health risks from HABs, and that swimming is discouraged where HABs are present. Better monitoring and reporting of toxin levels in the Great Lakes could improve the precision of public warnings and public health protection.

While such monitoring is not common practice, beach closures in the Great Lakes can impact your summer plans. Regular checks for beach closures in your area are a good way to stay informed on beach water quality, as postings can change over the swimming season.

Information is available online at BeachCast, a product of the Great Lakes Commission. Lake Ontario Waterkeeper also has a Swim Guide app that includes water quality information for beaches in Canada.

An infographic summarizing “Science and Monitoring Assessment for Human Health Effects of Cyanobacterial Toxins in the Great Lakes Region.” Credit: Health Professionals Advisory Board

Jennifer Boehme is a physical scientist at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.

Attention Increasing on Chemicals of Mutual Concern

By Jennifer Boehme, IJC

Chemical pollution of Great Lakes waters was subject of great interest at IJC’s recent public meetings, especially discussion in Sarnia, Ontario, of actions by Canada and the United States on Chemicals of Mutual Concern (CMCs).

Chemical contaminants in the Great Lakes basin have historically posed risks to human health and wildlife over many years. The latest 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between Canada and the United States seeks to address these risks and “… restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Waters of the Great Lakes.”

Both countries committed to action on Chemicals of Mutual Concern (CMCs) under Annex 3 in the 2012 Agreement. Under Annex 3, Canada and the United States identify CMCs from human sources, which both nations agree are potentially harmful to human health or the environment. Once identified, the countries work to reduce both humans’ releases of CMCs through personal, government or business activities, and the use of products containing CMCs.

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Industrial pollution. Credit: Kenn Kiser

Both governments engaged with partner groups and university, government and industry experts to consider the question of harm to health or environment for a list of CMC prospects. The effects of human and animal exposure to CMCs depend upon the toxicity of the chemical and amount of exposure. Chemicals also can be passed up the food chains and food webs of aquatic systems, leading to higher levels of contamination in predator species.

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Combined sewer overflows can release bacteria to waterways and result in beach closures. Credit: Michael Pereckas

Governments’ nomination and scientific review of CMCs proceeded in 2015, and their success with these actions resulted in the identification and designation of eight CMCs in May 2016:

  • Mercury
  • Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)
  • Long-chain perfluorinated carboxylic acids (LC-PFCAs)
  • Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD)
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
  • Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS)
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)
  • Short-chain chlorinated paraffins (SCCPs).

Effects in humans include neurologic (mercury), skin rashes (HBCDs) and cancer (PCBs).

Management action to control CMC’s environmental release and use are expected as a next step in the process. Binational strategies for each CMC guide these actions, and development of strategies for PCBs and HCBDs is underway.

The next round of technical review for new CMCs will begin soon, and candidate CMC nominations are welcome at any time. Nominations to date include radionuclides — types of atoms that are radioactive and may give off radiation to the environment as they decay. While some radionuclides occur naturally, other sources include human activities such as weapons testing and waste from nuclear power plants. Exposure to radiation can result in increased cancer in humans. Signers of the nomination for radionuclides cite the health risks and lack of current binational Great Lakes monitoring strategies.

The IJC’s draft Triennial Assessment of Progress noted the success of the governments in completing the first round of CMC identification, where developing processes for CMC nomination and review is a positive first step. The draft assessment indicated that governments also could rely on lessons learned from the first round of CMC nominations to improve actions toward GLWQA objectives. For instance, governments’ development of binational strategies to control CMCs are well behind schedule, and the sheer number of potential CMCs argues for streamlining of the CMCs process. Finally, progress in reducing levels of legacy chemicals is encouraging but emerging contaminants are of concern.

Jennifer Boehme is a physical scientist at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.

Viruses Can Travel the Great Lakes by Ship

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

ballast water, ships, viruses
Recent studies suggest that viral communities are able to travel far from home by hitching a lift in ballast water aboard ships. Credit: Yiseul Kim

Ships moving within the Great Lakes could be carrying viral passengers inside ballast tanks from one port to another.

These viruses are seemingly entering the Great Lakes from a variety of potential pathways: they may be spread by waterfowl, infected fish migrating from the Atlantic coast, bait transport or aquaculture. They also could be hitchhiking along in ballast water tanks that ships use to maintain balance, according to a 2015 study published in the American Chemical Society journal. What’s more, a followup study published since then suggests some viruses can make it to marine ports around the globe.

State and provincial governments around the Great Lakes have issued an advisory for an invasive virus called viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) in fish in the Great Lakes, first detected in Lake Ontario in 2005. The disease has led to major fish die-offs in all Great Lakes, Lake St. Clair and the St. Lawrence River. Although researchers aren’t sure how VHS entered the Great Lakes, it has proven to be a challenge to fisheries management.

Ballast water is used to fill these ballast tanks when a ship has less cargo to keep a ship stable. As more cargo is loaded onto the ship, ballast water is discharged to balance out the weight. Aquatic and marine life can get sucked up in that ballast water and discharged in completely different parts of the world, which accounts for the bulk of the invasive species in the Great Lakes. Canada and the United States have taken steps to prevent new invasive species from getting a lift from ballast water, by instituting one of the most stringent ballast water management regimes in the world, halting new aquatic invasive species from entering the basin from ballast water since 2006. This largely constitutes exchanging freshwater for seawater.

The 2015 study sampled ballast water from ships in a variety of locations on the lakes, including harbors like Toledo on Lake Erie, Essexville on Lake Huron, Burns Harbor on Lake Superior, and Hamilton on Lake Ontario. The ships were heading to Duluth on Lake Superior, one of the busiest harbors on the Great Lakes, and the ballast water was compared against the waters there as well, according to researcher Dr.  Yiseul Kim, a recent graduate from the Michigan State University Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics studying under Dr. Joan Rose (a member of the IJC’s Health Professionals Advisory Board).

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Michigan State University researchers Yiseul Kim and Tiong Gim Aw add water samples from Duluth to plastic containers for study. Credit: Yiseul Kim

The ballast waters contained virus communities, Kim said, corresponding to the harbors from where the ships had picked up their ballast water. By comparing the virus’ genetic sequences against those in a database for Duluth’s harbor, she was able to determine whether they were local to the area or unwanted passengers. These viral communities targeted life in a variety of scientific kingdoms, including algae, plants, invertebrates (like insects), and vertebrates (like fish).  More than half of these sampled viral communities target bacteria, the study said.

“Viruses influence microbial communities because they require a host to replicate,” according to Rose.  “When you consider the ecological, economic and public health problems associated with taking up and discharging ballast water, we’re talking about potentially a large impact if waterborne viruses and diseases are spread over these long distances.”

The study didn’t investigate viruses coming into the Great Lakes from other parts of the world, but Kim said a study she worked on that was published in 2016 looked at virus communities in ballast water traveling around the world to marine ports. She had similar findings in that study, with seemingly nonnative viruses riding along to different parts of the globe. Limiting the spread of these viruses by shipping would require ballast water treatment technology that Kim said is still in the research phase, as well as more information about virus types and their impact. Ballast water treatment systems are going to be required for ships entering the Great Lakes in the coming years, however, as regulations include new discharge limits for microbes for human health concerns.

A virus not native to a particular region does not necessarily mean it’s invasive. An invasive species is a nonnative species that is having a detrimental impact on its new environment and disrupts the ecosystem.

“I found that ballast water contains viruses,” Kim said. “It can potentially bring viruses (to new areas) but to confirm if they are invasive species I need to investigate the impact of the viruses on the new water system.”

ballast tank ship
A researcher heads down into the ballast tank of a ship to collect water samples for the study. Credit: Yiseul Kim

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

Science and Monitoring the Human Health Effects of Cyanobacterial Toxins

By Jennifer Boehme, IJC

Huge algal bloom fossils appear in rocks that are 3 billion years old. These organisms survived when other life couldn’t, and helped to form our atmosphere.  Today, similar blooms are visible from outer space. Cyanobacterial blooms continue to form around the world where waters have abundant or excess nutrients, like nitrogen or phosphorus.

In the Great Lakes, these blooms often float on surface water as a mat of blue-green scum.  Some blooms of cyanobacteria may produce toxic compounds (cyanotoxins), which can harm animal and human health. As a result, cyanobacteria blooms and cyanotoxins threaten Great Lakes recreational waters and drinking water supplies. These bacteria deserve our respect, and the stakes are huge: the Great Lakes provide drinking water for 35 million people and millions rely on it for recreation.

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Algal blooms impacting Pelee Island in western Lake Erie during the summer of 2015. Credit: NASA

To better understand the human health and management challenges for cyanobacteria and toxins common to the region, IJC’s Health Professionals Advisory Board undertook a science and monitoring assessment of the Great Lakes basin. Reviews of current literature indicate that blooms appear to be getting more frequent and long lasting than in the past, with new cyanobacteria appearing in the Great Lakes that have not been discovered here before. The report cites evidence which suggests we could reduce the risk of cyanobacterial blooms by controlling fertilizing pollutants and slowing the temperature rise in the lakes.

The review also highlights health surveillance gaps, and potential actions toward protecting public health. For instance, the ability of health care providers to associate environmental cyanotoxin exposure with individual cases and illness diagnoses remains a public health challenge. There also are questions as to how well existing public health guidelines for cyanotoxin exposure protect children, and the report makes a case for additional numeric criteria for more toxins.

The report notes that public health risk of cyanotoxin exposure can be reduced with improvements in drinking water monitoring and laboratory testing, though it is difficult to monitor beaches and drinking water to determine cyanotoxin presence. Challenges include the blooms, which can contain many cyanobacterial strains and multiple forms of toxins, complicating the search for simple testing strategies. Other challenges relate to current water treatment strategies, which may remove some toxins while making others worse. As a result, effectively managing cyanotoxin drinking water treatment remains a critical issue for Canada and the United States.

The threat to drinking water isn’t just theoretical: a 2014 bloom shut down the water system of Toledo, Ohio, a major US city. Canada has undertaken large investments in water infrastructure and monitoring, and the US is considering action toward a huge investment in infrastructure.

If the region is to improve water infrastructure the right way, binational efforts are needed. The HPAB report recommends identifying sound cyanotoxin treatment strategies, with technologies to remove mixtures rather than just individual toxins, and shifting treatments if a new toxin appears. These would be improvements over current water treatment practices.

Jennifer Boehme is a physical scientist at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario, and secretary of the Health Professionals Advisory Board.

Great Lakes Waterworks at the University of Toronto

By Bonnie McElhinny, University of Toronto

Building a watershed movement for restoration and healing of the Great Lakes comes with several challenges, as noted by authors Peter Lavinge and Stephen Gates. These include increasing public understanding of rivers and lakes, enhancing ecological literacy, recruiting and empowering leaders, building citizenship organizations, and linking water activists. The draft Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP) report under the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement also notes increasing need for public engagement, especially from indigenous nations and other under-represented groups.

student indigenous perspectives
Students learn about indigenous perspectives on the Humber River as part of the Great Lakes Waterworks program at the University of Toronto. Credit: Bonnie McElhinny

At the University of Toronto, an initiative called Great Lakes Waterworks will serve as a hub for social scientists and humanities scholars and social justice activists to think collectively about community building and public engagement. Supported by an ATLAS (Advanced Teaching and Learning in Arts and Science) grant from the University of Toronto, the initiative has three key goals:

  • to establish an identifiable cluster of courses linked to water-based issues in and on the Great Lakes, including more experiential approaches to education
  • to train undergraduate students in the social sciences and humanities to do hands-on research generated by emerging needs linked to ongoing environmental initiatives in their community
  • to forge teaching and research networks with organizations in Toronto working actively on environmental and social justice initiatives.

Great Lakes Waterworks also dovetails with 2016 recommendations from a Canadian federal Truth and Reconciliation report for transforming relationships with indigenous nations. The University of Toronto’s version of the report, released in January, notes the need for indigenous approaches to spaces on campus, with a particular call for attention to a buried water body on campus (Taddle Creek), and deepening commitments to land-based education.

This year’s courses in Anthropology and Women and Gender Studies, taught at University of Toronto-St. George by Bonnie McElhinny and at the University of Toronto-Mississauga by Andrea Muehlebach, included “Living on the Water’s Edge in Toronto,” “Water and Social Justice,” and “Anthropologies of Water: On Values, Meanings and Futures.”

The courses introduced students to a range of ways to represent debates about water, such as photography, fiction and ethnography, to debates about water extraction, pipelines and approaches to city infrastructure. All were inflected by indigenous understandings of water and land. Instructors blurred classroom boundaries by inviting local activists from such organizations as Wellington Water Watchers to discuss ongoing work.

wellington water watchers toronto
The Wellington Water Watchers explain their work to University of Toronto students. Credit: Olivia Adamczyk

Students also had the opportunity to participate in a Digital Campfire called “Water Pedagogies:  Confluence in the Great Lakes,” which allowed 12 educators working with undergraduate students, elementary school students and general audiences to discuss ongoing work, how they engaged students, problems, questions and resources that are unaddressed or unavailable, and opportunities and needs for connecting educators and students around the Great Lakes. The audio file and a summary of presenters’ key points can be found at

Initiatives planned for the next year include:

  • a Great Lakes Circle convened with the support of Great Lakes Commons and the University of Toronto for 60-80 academics, activists, artists and others
  • a canoe build by an Anishinaabe activist with indigenous teachings
  • podcasts by students on water issues for a campus radio station
  • joint projects and courses for social science and planning students with Sheila Boudreau, a landscape architect with the City of Toronto who works on green infrastructure
  • joint initiatives with New College, integrating water-curriculum into ongoing initiatives on land and food security in residential, curricular and extra-curricular activities
  • A research partnership to support land and water protection and indigenous governance with Nancy Rowe, Mississaugas of the New Credit, and Kevin Best, Rivercourt Engineering/Indigenize or Die.

Bonnie McElhinny is an associate professor at the University of Toronto, and can be contacted at for further information.  A website and Facebook page will be launched for the Great Lakes Waterworks project in late summer 2017.