Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Shipping:  What Have You Done for Me Lately?

By Bruce Burrows, Chamber of Marine Commerce

They are a common sight along the shores of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River – brightly-colored behemoths silently gliding by. They have storied histories and networks of fans and have even become a tourist attraction for waterfront towns. But what do commercial freighters (salties and lakers as they are affectionately called) contribute to our region and everyday lives?

A new report, “The Economic Impacts of Maritime Shipping in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Region,” helps answer that question.

The Algoma Equinox carrying cargo on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence waterway. Credit:  Sara Fox
The Algoma Equinox carrying cargo on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence waterway. Credit:  Sara Fox

The analysis, conducted by economic consultants Martin Associates and overseen by a steering committee of public agencies and private companies, details the economic benefits of shipping activity along the entire binational Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River waterway – the longest deep draft inland navigation system in the world.

The numbers are significant:

  • In 2017, more than 230 million metric tons of raw materials and finished goods were transported by ships to and from ports via the waterway, which includes the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence Seaway and lower St. Lawrence River.
  • This international and domestic cargo was worth more than US$77 billion (CDN$100 billion).
  • Cargo handled at the ports supported US$46 billion (CDN$60 billion) of economic activity and 329,000 direct, indirect and induced jobs in the eight Great Lakes states and Ontario and Quebec. Direct jobs are those dependent on port activity; indirect jobs are those generated when firms involved with port activity purchase goods and services. Induced jobs are those created when individuals directly employed by port activity spend their wages in the community.
  • Marine-related industries and employees contributed significantly to the health, education and general prosperity of society through their US$18 billion (CDN$23 billion) contribution to federal and provincial/state and local taxes.

You can find specific information on Canadian provinces and US states online. An infographic also helps summarize the findings.

Delving Deeper

The maritime industry supports not only direct jobs on ships and the waterfront – such as vessel crew, longshoremen, terminal employees, pilots and truckers – but also direct jobs at steel mills, mines and other facilities that are dependent on the cargo being delivered by ships.

These jobs would likely disappear without the navigation system. The location of steel mills, alumina smelters and dependent iron ore, salt and alumina mines in proximity to ports and marine terminals underscores the importance of the transportation system in providing raw materials to the region’s industrial economy.

As Sean Donnelly, president and CEO of steel company ArcelorMittal Dofasco puts it: “More than 185 ships carry iron ore and coal to our Hamilton docks every year for steel production, as well as other materials such as steel slabs and coke.

“It provides a direct, cost-effective and sustainable way to transport these huge volumes of raw materials.  Our success is dependent on the success of our supply chain, including the St. Lawrence Seaway and the ship operators that move our material.”

The fact that ships carry these goods cost effectively, safely and sustainably enhances the global competitiveness of the region’s industries and directly impacts those who live here.

Previous studies have shown that ships are the most fuel-efficient way to transport goods and that one Seaway-sized ship can carry as much as 963 trucks in just one load. As a result, using marine transportation significantly reduces highway congestion and carbon emissions. A Research and Traffic Group study found that rail would emit 19 percent and trucks would emit 533 percent more greenhouse gas emissions per cargo ton/kilometer if these modes carried the same cargo the same distance as the Great Lakes-Seaway fleet.

Ships Bring Staples

This latest economic report shows the sheer volume and breadth of cargoes transported on the binational waterway. These cargoes become the staples of everyday life:  the food feeding our families; the salt that de-ices our roads; the stone, cement and other materials that become our buildings, factories, roads and bridges; the steel and aluminum that become our vehicles and planes; and the energy that powers our homes and offices.

Credit: The Economic Impacts of Maritime Shipping in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Region, Martin Associates, 2018.
Credit: The Economic Impacts of Maritime Shipping in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Region, Martin Associates, 2018.

Bruce Burrows is the president of the Chamber of Marine Commerce, based in Ottawa, Canada.

FishPass: Solving One of Fishery Management’s Greatest Challenges

By Jill Wingfield, Great Lakes Fishery Commission

Flowing through the heart of Traverse City, Michigan—a popular destination in the Great Lakes region—is the Boardman (Ottaway) River. Formerly used to generate hydropower, the 28.6 miles of the Boardman River were fragmented by four dams: Brown Bridge, Boardman, Sabin and Union Street.

For nearly 15 years, the Boardman River Dams Ecosystem Restoration Program has sought to remove the aging dams and reconnect more than 160 miles of free flowing water through the river and its tributaries. To date, the Brown Bridge and Boardman Dams have been removed and the Sabin Dam is on its way out.

The Boardman River Dams Ecosystem Restoration Project will reconnect more than 160 miles of free-flowing, cold-water stream and restore hundreds of acres of wetland and upland habitat. Credit:
The Boardman River Dams Ecosystem Restoration Project will reconnect more than 160 miles of free-flowing, cold-water stream and restore hundreds of acres of wetland and upland habitat. Credit:

As attention turned to the fourth and final barrier, the Union Street Dam, the discussion about how to proceed became more challenging. The Union Street Dam is the terminal barrier to Lake Michigan, meaning that while it does block desirable species from moving upstream into riverine habitat, it also prevents harmful species, such as sea lampreys, from infesting the river.

Improving connectivity throughout a watershed without compromising the ecosystem by allowing aquatic invasive species to enter and spread through the system is one of the greatest challenges facing fishery managers today. The Great Lakes Fishery Commission, working with myriad partners, aims to develop a bidirectional, selective fish sorting system, called FishPass, to solve this problem.

Conceptual rendering of the FishPass site based on the 30 percent design. The next phase of design is scheduled to be completed in 2018. Credit: Great Lakes Fishery Commission
Conceptual rendering of the FishPass site based on the 30 percent design. The next phase of design is scheduled to be completed in 2018. Credit: Great Lakes Fishery Commission

FishPass, which is to be situated in downtown Traverse City, is the capstone portion of the Boardman River transformation. FishPass is an innovative project to enhance fish passage and connectivity between the Boardman River and Lake Michigan while removing invasive or non-desirable fishes through controlled sorting.

The project will replace the deteriorating Union Street Dam, located 1.5 miles from Lake Michigan, with an improved barrier featuring an in-stream fish-sorting channel on the north bank to allow for research on integrating a suite of technologies and techniques for selective fish passage and invasive species control. On the south bank, a nature-like river channel will allow for recreational activities such as wading, kayak portaging and fishing.

For the next decade, FishPass will be operated as a living laboratory where scientists from all over the world can evaluate different technologies such as water velocity barriers, light guidance, video shape recognition and eel ladder style traps to sort different species of fish and effectively pass or remove animals.

In addition to providing state-of-the-art research opportunities, the site will afford a major opportunity to educate schoolkids, university students, researchers and tourists about the Boardman River, the Great Lakes and environmental restoration. Current plans to enhance the site’s educational and outreach potential include: construction of a research facility/visitors center with public restrooms; placement of in-stream viewing monitors and camera systems to provide a fish-eye view of animals in the river and passing through the channels; development of a digital app that will provide a self-guided eco-interpretive tour of the fish passage facility; and use of interpretive signage.

Once optimized (which shouldn’t take more than 10 years), the system will be converted to a permanent fish passageway for the long-term and purposed to pass desirable fishes and remove undesirable fishes. During the research phase and long-term operation, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources will determine, through public consultation, which species will be allowed to pass and which species should be blocked.

Lessons learned from the experimental phase can be applied to similar rivers in the Great Lakes basin and worldwide and customized to create selective fish passage at new sites. FishPass could have regional, national and global implications. It is a true legacy project in every sense and will benefit the current generation and generations that follow.

Jill Wingfield is communications and policy program manager for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Providing a multitude of educational opportunities is one of the goals of FishPass. The site will function as a “living laboratory” while various techniques and technologies are evaluated. Credit: A. Miehls, Great Lakes Fishery Commission
Providing a multitude of educational opportunities is one of the goals of FishPass. The site will function as a “living laboratory” while various techniques and technologies are evaluated. Credit: A. Miehls, Great Lakes Fishery Commission

Project Gives Identity to Michigan Coastal Dunes and their Users

By Beau Brocket, Jr., West Michigan Environmental Action Council

A two-year project seeking to advance understanding and awareness of the world’s largest collection of freshwater coastal sand dunes is wrapping up.

The Michigan Environmental Council coordinated a team of academic experts, environmental organizations, citizens and dune stakeholders to create the first complete map of Michigan’s 230,423 acres (93,249 hectares) of coastal sand dunes, giving identity to the dunes and their users.

Dunes at Muskegon State Park. Credit: E.S. Isely
Dunes at Muskegon State Park. Credit: E.S. Isely


The Valuing Michigan’s Coastal Dunes project stemmed from a 2015 Michigan Environmental Council report outlining the history of Michigan’s dune management. Both projects were funded by Michigan’s Office of the Great Lakes’ Coastal Zone Management Program via the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Two teams worked simultaneously throughout the project. The first created a new GIS (Geographic Information System) map of Michigan’s coastal dunes to establish the true spatial extent of the dunes. Before the map was created under Michigan State University leadership, discussion about the dunes was limited because an accurate representation of the full extent of the coastal dune feature had never been completed.

The map allows a more accurate understanding and future study of the dunes, such as what percentage of the dunes is in public ownership, and how much of the dune system is regulated by other state or local laws. For example, about one third of the newly mapped coastal dunes are designated as “critical,” meaning that development is allowed but limited by state regulation.

Michigan’s coastal dunes: a) comprehensive map, b) mapped dunes in Emmet County and c) mapped dunes in Ottawa County. Credit: A. Arbogast and C. Queen, Michigan State University
Michigan’s coastal dunes: a) comprehensive map, b) mapped dunes in Emmet County and c) mapped dunes in Ottawa County. Credit: A. Arbogast and C. Queen, Michigan State University
Examples of various resolutions represented in the new dune mapping effort. Credit: A. Arbogast and C. Queen, Michigan State University
Examples of various resolutions represented in the new dune mapping effort. Credit: A. Arbogast and C. Queen, Michigan State University

The map also included several coastal dune fields on Michigan’s east coast that were previously not included on maps such as the State’s Atlas of Critical Dunes – Township Maps of Critical Dunes, though many local people suspected they were coastal dunes.

The map will be available on Michigan Environmental Council website once final approval for the project is received from the Coastal Zone Management Program, under the Michigan Office of the Great Lakes at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

At the same time, team members also worked on building understanding of the social, cultural and economic importance of the dunes. To identify how people interacted with and valued the natural resource, a #HowYouDune campaign was launched.

The campaign’s core was an online survey, modeled on previous work done by the Surfrider Foundation and built by Ducks Unlimited, another project partner. Survey participants could locate which coastal dune sites they visited using a mapping feature. Then, they could share activities they did during their visits, trip expenditures and beliefs in the value of Michigan’s dunes.

From the campaign’s Freshwater Dunes Summit kickoff in May to its end in October 2017, more than 3,600 individuals recorded more than 7,000 dune visits from 2016 onward. Nearly 90 percent reported visiting a dune site with others, bringing an average 2.4 people with them and spending an average of US$392, much of it in the local area.

More than 90 percent of survey respondents found the dunes’ scenic beauty and their protection for future generations to be very or extremely important to them. Beachgoing and scenic enjoyment were top reasons for visiting dunes. Camping ranked third.

The Michigan Environmental Council, West Michigan Environmental Action Council and Heart of the Lakes led the campaign’s outreach. Social media posts, postcards and posters left at lakeshore businesses, and email lists informed people of the survey and the importance of dunes to the environment.

Team members provided campaign literature and presented to at numerous lakeshore events and businesses. Case study interviews with businesses who benefited from dune-related experiences were conducted.

The full project team presented its results at the International Association of Great Lakes Research Conference earlier this summer in Toronto.

“Michigan’s coastal sand dunes are truly a world-class natural resource, providing the backdrop for the Pure Michigan brand and attracting more and more visitors and residents to our Great Lakes shorelines,” said Brad Garmon, project lead at the Michigan Environmental Council, who coordinated the presentations. “We want to build the base of knowledge and understanding of these resources, and begin to measure their impact on people and the economy, so that as a state we can be smart about how we protect, use and enjoy them.”

Beau Brocket Jr. is an eco-journalism and blogging intern for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), located in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

From the Michigan Environmental Council:

As noted in a 2015 Michigan Environmental Council report: “In the Great Lakes region, by far, the majority of coastal sand dunes are located in Michigan, with 275,000 acres on the Lake Michigan and Lake Superior shorelines …

“There are relatively small areas of dunes (both privately and publicly held) in Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Dunes in Wisconsin are encompassed in the 865-acre Whitefish Dunes State Park and 1,000-acre Kohler-Andrae State Park, which contains two and a half miles of beach. Dunes in Illinois are located in the Illinois Beach State Park. Its dune area is situated on about six and a half miles on Lake Michigan in the 4,000-acre park. In Indiana, the majority of the coastal dunes are located in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. The 15,000-acre national park has 15 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline. There are no state regulations for coastal dunes in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana.

“One of the largest stretches of dunes in the Great Lakes outside of Michigan is a 17-mile stretch on eastern Lake Ontario, owned and managed by the State of New York. An important program to note is the Eastern Lake Ontario Dunes Coalition, a public-private partnership focused on education, stewardship and overall management of the dune area. There are 35 partners in the coalition, including local, county, state, and federal entities. The coalition has issued a number of status reports, and has established a Dune Steward program to flag issues on the shoreline and to provide education to area residents and visitors.”

Tracking Coastal Wetland Response to Changing Great Lakes Water Levels

By Mike Shantz, ECCC

Field sampling in a Lake Ontario coastal wetland using a GPS receiver (tall pole) and 1-by-0.5-meter plot. Credit: Canadian Wildlife Service
Field sampling in a Lake Ontario coastal wetland using a GPS receiver (tall pole) and 1-by-0.5-meter plot. Credit: Canadian Wildlife Service

The IJC’s Great Lakes- St. Lawrence Adaptive Management (GLAM) Committee is interested in improving the understanding of how Great Lakes coastal wetlands change over time in response to fluctuating water levels.

By initiating efforts to validate and improve existing models used to simulate wetland vegetation response under a wide variety of water level scenarios, the GLAM Committee will be in a better position to evaluate the performance of plans for regulating outflows from Lake Superior and Lake Ontario.

Coastal wetlands along the Great Lakes shoreline provide many valuable ecological services to local and regional communities, such as shoreline stabilization and improving water quality, and are considered some of the most biologically diverse and productive habitat within the Great Lakes basin.

They occur at the transition between open water and drier upland areas and are home to a wide variety of plants that create habitat for numerous fish and wildlife species; some that are found nowhere else in the basin.

Given the importance of coastal wetlands to the ecosystem, models of how wetland vegetation responds to changes in water levels over time are important in the evaluation of the environmental implications of outflow regulation. Since these model results were a factor in the decision to implement Plan 2014 for Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, wetland monitoring efforts of the GLAM Committee have been particularly focused on the response of wetland vegetation to water level fluctuation along the Lake Ontario and upper St. Lawrence River shoreline.

Coastal wetlands are dynamic, meaning they change constantly over time in response to a variety of factors including natural long-term changes in Great Lakes water levels. Often such changes are difficult to observe because they typically occur slowly and may be delayed following an event.

As water levels fluctuate within a given season, year or multiple years, plants in the wetland will respond based on their water tolerance. From deeper water to the shore, as plants change from submerged to emergent or upland, their suitability as habitat for various fish and wildlife also changes.

If water levels remain low for a few years, the higher elevation areas of the wetland that had previously been wet will become drier and more suitable for upland plant species (such as non-native common buckthorn) that can’t tolerate very wet conditions.

At the same time, plant seeds like soft-stem bulrush buried in newly exposed sediment can germinate and grow, providing new shelter and nutrition for wildlife. During periods of high lake levels, areas of the wetland at higher elevation that are dry in most years will become wetter and upland vegetation species that were able to survive during dry conditions will die off. This allows plants to flourish that are more tolerant of moist conditions, such as Canada Blue-joint and tussock sedge.

Unique Monitoring Efforts

With the support of the IJC’s International Watersheds Initiative, the GLAM Committee and its partners, including the Canadian Wildlife Service and the New York Natural Heritage Program, were able to complete wetland vegetation monitoring at a number of Lake Ontario sites in 2015 and 2017 and will be carrying out additional monitoring in 2018.

While many agencies monitor different aspects of Great Lakes coastal wetlands, the work being done in support of the IJC’s GLAM Committee is unique because the approach involves the collection of data for vegetation species and precise bottom elevation information.

An example of a GPS base station and portable receiver. Credit: Canadian Wildlife Service
An example of a GPS base station and portable receiver. Credit: Canadian Wildlife Service

The approach requires the use of modern global positioning equipment to determine location and elevation.

In 2015, sampling took place at eight wetland sites around Lake Ontario and the upper St. Lawrence River while 32 sites were sampled in 2017.

In 2017, record high water levels on Lake Ontario provided scientists with the chance to gather data at elevations that had not been flooded for decades. These real-world observations are essential to understanding how vegetation communities respond over time to different water level conditions at different shoreline elevations.

Data collected at multiple plots, within multiple sites and over many years under a wide range of water level conditions, including potential future low water conditions, directly support GLAM Committee efforts to test regulation plan performance by estimating vegetation response under various Lake Ontario outflow management scenarios and confirm whether expected improvements in wetland health will occur through the implementation of Plan 2014.

The GLAM Committee will continue monitoring 16 Canadian sites in September 2018 and expects to continue periodic wetland monitoring efforts in the future to ensure sites are visited under a wide range of water level conditions when the most dramatic changes in vegetation are expected to be observed.

Going forward, the GLAM Committee also is looking at supplementing the current field sampling approach with data from new technologies including imagery acquisition from drones and high-resolution satellite imagery. Combined, the information will indicate the elevation at which various plant communities are found as well as the extent of those plant communities within the wetland.

In addition to providing critical information for validating the water regulation plan models, these GLAM Committee studies are contributing valuable knowledge on wetland vegetation adaptation to guide local wetland protection and restoration efforts by communities and organizations in Ontario, Quebec and New York, as well as other regions in the Great Lakes where coastal wetlands occur.

Differences in wetland vegetation within sample plots at different elevations. Credit: Canadian Wildlife Service
Differences in wetland vegetation within sample plots at different elevations. Credit: Canadian Wildlife Service

Mike Shantz is the Canadian co-secretary for the IJC’s Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management Committee.

Protecting Public Health with Open Recreational Water Quality Data

By Gabrielle Parent-Doliner, Swim Guide

An example of information available on the Swim Guide app. Credit: Swim Drink Fish Canada
An example of information available on the Swim Guide app. Credit: Swim Drink Fish Canada

In 2011, a small team in Toronto launched the first version of Swim Guide, a smartphone app and website that helps people easily access data from beach water quality monitoring programs and find clean places to swim.

Swim Guide, an initiative of Swim Drink Canada, was created in response to a frequently asked question by the public: “Is it OK to go in the water today at the beach?”

The stated primary purpose of recreational water quality monitoring all over the world is to protect the public from contaminated water. When recreational water quality information is clearly and promptly communicated to the public, people can take measures to protect their health and the health of family and friends.

There are more than 1,000 monitored Canadian and US beaches in the Great Lakes. Yet the public faces barriers when searching for answers to questions about the water quality at their beach or swimming hole and potential health impacts.

Data from recreational water quality monitoring programs can be difficult to find, buried on websites or phone hotlines that aren’t easy for people to locate. It can take anywhere from 24 hours to a week or more from the time a sample is taken to the time the public has access to test results. This means information the public receives often does not reflect current water quality.

In addition, recreational water quality data can be presented in a way that is difficult for the public to understand. There is little consistency in the way data is presented. Datasets are often incomplete, missing essential information such as the date the sample was taken or the sample location.

Health Impacts

When water quality is not promptly and clearly communicated, there can be serious consequences to the health of recreational water users.

The impact of contaminated waters on the health of communities and the economy is startling. A 2018 University of Illinois study found that 4.04 billion recreation water events, such as swimming or surfing, occur annually in the U.S., resulting in an estimated 90 million illnesses nationwide and cost the country $2.2-$3.7 billion annually.

The study was the first to quantify the number of recreational water illnesses and the economic burden of these illnesses on a national scale. The study found that about 65 percent of the annual national cost is attributed to recreational water illnesses that “resulted in contact with a health care practitioner or evaluation in an emergency department.” In Canada, an estimated 3-8 percent of people get sick after swimming, according to the journal Canadian Family Physician.

Water sampling in Toronto Harbour. Credit: Swim Drink Fish Canada
Water sampling in Toronto Harbour. Credit: Swim Drink Fish Canada

A 2017 “State of the Great Lakes” report by Canadian and US environmental agencies found the status of beaches to be “fair to good,” based on how often they’re unsafe for swimming due to bacterial contamination.

Making recreational water quality data open is an effective way to address challenges the public faces in accessing and interpreting recreational water quality. The Canadian government defines open data as “structured data that is machine-readable, freely shared, used and built on without restrictions.”

Recreational water quality data is slowly beginning to be shared openly in places like Toronto and Chicago. However, the interoperability, the ability to exchange and use the data, is being impeded by a lack of consistency in the way dataset are structured and managed.

Open Data Standard

In 2017, Swim Guide received a grant from the Canadian Internet Registration Authority to develop a standard for exchanging recreational water quality data. In collaboration with the US Environmental Protection Agency, Surfrider Foundation, River Network and Alberta Health services, the first-ever open data standard was developed for the automated exchange of recreational water quality. The first version of the open data standard was published earlier this summer and is available online. For recreational water quality data, open access means people can access the complete data set as quickly as it becomes available.

Swim Guide and Swim Drink Fish Canada plan to use the standard in 2018 to make beach water quality information more accessible to the public via the Swim Guide app and website, which includes data on Canadian and US beaches.

Information also is available via the open data portal of monitoring bodies who have adopted the standard, such as the Surfrider Foundation’s Blue Water Task Force program, which is active in 35 chapters in Canada and the U.S.

Open data empowers people with the knowledge they need to better protect their health from contaminated water. And more importantly, open access to information about the health of their favorite beaches will help people have great days and build great memories on the water.

Gabrielle Parent-Doliner is program manager for Swim Guide, a Swim Drink Fish Canada initiative, based out of Toronto, Ontario.

In Your Own Words: Why People Care About the Great Lakes

By Jessica Gordon, Swim Drink Fish

According to the Second Binational Great Lakes Basin Poll, “An overwhelming majority of survey respondents (88%) feel it is important to protect the Great Lakes,” and this number is up by 3 percent from the first poll conducted two years ago.

It is clear that people who live in the Great Lakes basin have a great appreciation for these waters. However, understanding why they are willing to protect them is also important, both for the future of the lakes and our relationship with them. Through the Watermark Project, we can begin to learn why people care about the Great Lakes as much as they do.

The Watermark Project is a community effort to collect and archive true stories about the ways people interact with water. The International Joint Commission is a partner.

A “Watermark” is a story about a waterbody that a person has a meaningful connection to and how they made that connection. These stories help us to recognize our dependence on water and highlight water’s influence on our culture. These stories can help protect the waterbodies people care about by recording how we use and interact with them.

For Susan Schaeffer, Lake Ontario is a reminder of everything that is available to those that live on the Great Lakes, including the water we drink. Schaeffer sees this in Toronto Harbour, and the vital role it has to play in Toronto, sustaining and providing for the city. She comments that those living by the Great Lakes have a certain amount of responsibility in taking care of this incredible, accessible resource.

Carrie Ginou recognizes the beauty of the Great Lakes. Ginou discusses how the sheer amount of freshwater in one place is an incredible natural wonder. The impact of this was highlighted for her by the incredible beauty of Lake Superior that she saw in her first glimpse of the lake. It inspired her and continues to inspire her.

Patricia Corcoran remembers the past and how the Great Lakes used to be. Corcoran is concerned about the increasing amounts of plastic pollution and the effect it is having on Lake Huron. She says it’s important to protect the lake that she grew up next to because it was, and is, her home.

To express why a waterbody you care about is important to you, submit your own Watermark here or browse the archive for more stories about the important role water plays in our lives and communities.

Jessica Gordon is collections coordinator for the Watermark Project, an initiative of Swim Drink Fish in Toronto, Ontario.

Teaching Teachers to Improve Invasive Species, Great Lakes Science Education

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

Educators take part in a Marquette, Michigan, workshop to help them teach children and families about invasive species. Credit: Joan Chadde
Educators take part in a Marquette, Michigan, workshop to help them teach children and families about invasive species. Credit: Joan Chadde

Children spend a considerable amount of time each year in school, and for those who live near the Great Lakes this region can be the perfect venue for science education. Furthermore, what better way to help improve Great Lakes education in the classroom than by teaching the teachers? That’s the thinking behind a pair of programs, funded by the Michigan Invasive Species Grant Program and the US National Science Foundation (NSF).

The most recent session was held in July on Belle Isle, Michigan, the island park on the Detroit River known as the “Jewel of Detroit.” The NSF-funded program brings in educators from Detroit Public School Community District for a weeklong summer workshop, helping them learn more about the ecology of the Great Lakes and the invasive species that have set up residence in Great Lakes waters, and plan class projects that involve using that unique regional resource.

The program also offers funds for teachers’ educational programs, which can include field trips to Belle Isle and the Belle Isle Aquarium, said Amy Emmert, director of education with the Belle Isle Conservancy, as well as for teachers to purchase supplies related to teaching kids about science and invasive species.

“We’ve got a massive opportunity to open up to local students, to show that there are great recreational, educational, and scientific opportunities in Detroit,” Emmert said.

A teacher works on a potential lesson plan during a session at an educational workshop in Saginaw, Michigan. Credit: Dion Walker and Jeffrey Ram
A teacher works on a potential lesson plan during a session at an educational workshop in Saginaw, Michigan. Credit: Dion Walker and Jeffrey Ram

These educational efforts started in 2017 with a series of six-hour workshops focused on invasive species for teachers and other informal educators (such as those at museums, aquariums and nature preserves), held at Belle Isle in Detroit, Marquette, Saginaw, Mount Pleasant and Ada, Michigan, said Joan Chadde, director of Michigan Technological University’s Center for Science and Environmental Outreach.

Because invasive species can be inadvertently moved around or introduced into the basin by the general public, limiting their spread as much as possible through educational efforts is key, according to Jeffrey Ram, professor of physiology at Wayne State University. Additionally, participating teachers could receive $200 stipends if they write and submit an approved lesson plan, Ram said, with 15 approved lesson plans listed on the website as of August 2018.

“Based on the testimony of teachers that it’s been useful to them in their teaching, we think it should have had an impact,” Ram said. In all, about 120 educators participated in the six workshops, and Ram anticipates they could in turn influence 20,000 kids annually through their jobs.

An invasive species quiz was given to students from second grade through high school by participating teachers, testing recognition of what some invasive species are and soliciting ideas on how to control their spread. Ram said about 75 percent of all students tested successfully recognized the native vs. nonnative/invasive species, and 96 percent were able to give correct answers to the questions on controlling or preventing their spread.

The July workshop was focused on using aquariums as a local educational resource. Over four days, a variety of speakers gave presentations to the fifth-grade teachers from Detroit Public Schools Community District. The presentations were designed to help teachers develop lesson plans around the concepts of food webs, adaptation, invasive species, reproduction and the complex relationship between science, economics, history and geography in the Great Lakes.

Emmert said the Belle Isle Conservancy has educational equipment on hand, such as microscopes that can be projected onto whiteboards and take photos or video recordings, so part of the workshop included coming up with ways that teachers could use these resources in the classroom. For example, she suggested teachers could collect water samples from the Detroit River off the island – or bring students along to do it as part of a field trip – and then use the microscopes to look at, photograph and identify tiny creatures that live in the water.

The teachers also learned how to write grants to fund bus trips to the aquarium to meet with educational staffers or local experts and speakers, Emmert said, or host a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) based event at their schools.

Ram said the NSF-backed program focuses on fifth-grade teachers because studies suggest that is when kids begin thinking about what they’d like to do in the future.

“Our intention is to prove that this is a good model for stimulating the interests of K-12 students in science and science careers, and with that model we’d like to interest other institutions to do similar projects,” Ram said. “If we were to work together with the Shedd Aquarium (in Chicago) or the National Aquarium (in Baltimore) or elsewhere to create similar programs, we’d have a highly positive impact on the education of students in urban school systems.”

Wayne State University researcher Jeff Ram gives a presentation in Saginaw about various invasive species in the Great Lakes basin. Credit: Dion Walker and Jeffrey Ram
Wayne State University researcher Jeff Ram gives a presentation in Saginaw about various invasive species in the Great Lakes basin. Credit: Dion Walker and Jeffrey Ram


Second Binational Poll Reaffirms that Citizens Feel Great Lakes Protection is Critical

Lakes Seen as Valuable for Recreation, Drinking Water and Essential to Region’s Economy
Residents of the Chicago region enjoy a summer weekend on Lake Michigan. Credit: IJC
Residents of the Chicago region enjoy a summer weekend on Lake Michigan. Credit: IJC

By Sally Cole-Misch, IJC

Eighty eight percent of respondents to a new poll believe protecting the Great Lakes is important. And 55 percent are willing to pay more for consumer products as a result of increased regulations or enforcement to ensure the lakes are restored and protected. The numbers come from a second large survey by the IJC’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board.

Credit: Second Binational Great Lakes Basin Poll
Credit: Second Binational Great Lakes Basin Poll

The survey was completed in January 2018 and is summarized in a poll report released in mid-July. The 4,250 respondents reflect a concerted effort by the board to be inclusive of all sectors of the population. Respondents live in the eight Great Lakes states (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) and the Canadian province of Ontario. This includes representative sampling of Indigenous people (First Nations, Métis and Tribes) from each lake basin to gain insights on their unique perspectives. The first survey was completed in late 2015.

The whopping 88 percent feel it is essential to protect the Great Lakes from a variety of threats, including pollution and aquatic invasive species – a 3 percent increase from the 2015 poll. While 39 percent believe all sectors of society can play a role in protection efforts, 23 percent and 18 percent list federal and state/provincial governments, respectively, as responsible for the lakes’ health.

As in 2015, all demographic groups and geographic jurisdictions view protection of the Great Lakes as highly important. Younger respondents, especially millennials (85 percent) and people who expressed liberal or progressive political viewpoints (87 percent), were most likely to feel it is important for the individual to play a role to ensure the lakes are protected and act on those beliefs.

Credit: Second Binational Great Lakes Basin Poll
Credit: Second Binational Great Lakes Basin Poll

Also up 3 percent from the 2015 poll are those who feel it is important to protect the lakes for recreational purposes, even if they personally do not use them, at 89 percent. Those who use the lakes for recreation enjoy swimming and beach visits (35 percent), followed by 27 percent who enjoy fishing and boating of various kinds. Lake Michigan is the most visited lake, followed by lakes Ontario, Erie, Superior and Huron, according to the poll.

Fishing is the second-most popular form of Great Lakes recreation. Credit: Adobe
Fishing is the second-most popular form of Great Lakes recreation. Credit: Adobe

More than half of respondents believe there are too few regulations to protect the lakes, compared with 46 percent in the 2015 poll. Fifty three percent feel additional protections would have either no impact (30 percent) or a positive impact (23 percent) on jobs and the economy, while 27 percent felt there would be negative implications and 20 percent were undecided.

Pollution (19 percent) is again mentioned as the most significant problem facing the Great Lakes. When combined with the third most mentioned issue, industrial pollution, 30 percent identify pollution as the most significant problem. Invasive species ranks second at 17 percent, followed by climate change, a new response in the 2018 poll, identified by 3 percent of respondents.

Credit: Second Binational Great Lakes Basin Poll
Credit: Second Binational Great Lakes Basin Poll

Top Ten Issues

In a new series of questions, residents were asked to rank the negative impact of 10 issues on Great Lakes environmental health and water quality. Respondents feel all 10 have highly negative to extremely negative impacts, including invasive species, algae blooms, municipal wastewater runoff, climate change, the petroleum industry (pipelines, drilling, fracking), the impact of heavy rainstorms, flooding, nuclear waste, loss of wetlands, and manure or animal waste runoff. This last issue also received the highest percentage of respondents who feel it has no or little impact (20 percent).

Credit: Second Binational Great Lakes Basin Poll
Credit: Second Binational Great Lakes Basin Poll

While a large majority of those surveyed believe the Great Lakes should be protected for the benefit of fish and wildlife (79 percent), their economic significance to the region was listed first by 78 percent, followed by their importance to human health now and for future generations (74 and 77 percent, respectively).

Credit: Second Binational Great Lakes Basin Poll
Credit: Second Binational Great Lakes Basin Poll

Eighty percent also believe each person is responsible for protecting the lakes, up 2 percent from the 2015 poll, which includes such actions as being careful of what they wash down the drain (83 percent), conserving water (74 percent), engaging in online forums and interest groups who address Great Lakes issues (37 percent) and contacting elected and government officials to express their concerns (32 percent). While 30 percent were unsure what steps they could take in 2015, 25 percent were unsure in the 2018 poll.

A large majority, 80 percent, feel it is important that an organization like the IJC exists to facilitate cooperation in Canada and the United States on issues impacting the Great Lakes, and ensure that the goals and programs outlined in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement are accomplished. This majority increased from 74 percent in the 2015 poll.

Sally Cole-Misch is the public affairs officer for the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office.

Mattress Recycling as an Example of Extended Producer Responsibility Programs

By Raj Bejankiwar, IJC
Jessica MacKinnon, former IJC

mattress recycling extended producer responsibility
Credit: Michael Dougherty

The Waters of the Great Lakes should be free from pollutants in quantities or concentrations that could be harmful to human health, wildlife, or aquatic organisms, through direct exposure or indirect exposure through the food chain.”

So states a General Objective of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between Canada and the United States. The agreement was last updated in 2012, but the IJC has since issued a Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP) that includes discussion about work by the two governments in addressing pollutants. In this report, the IJC recommended “the Parties adopt and extend policies and programs based on the principles of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) on a broad range of products, including flame retardants, to prevent introduction of toxic and non-toxic contaminants into the Great Lakes.”

Extended Producer Responsibility is an environmental policy approach in which a producer’s responsibility for a product is extended to the post-consumer stage of a product’s life cycle. This recommendation largely originates from the IJC’s Water Quality Board, which recommended in late 2016 that the approach be embedded in binational strategies developed by the Canadian and US governments.

The IJC determined a need to better understand how a program for products containing toxic chemicals such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers  (PBDEs) could be implemented in the Great Lakes basin by the governments of Canada and the United States.

(See also: “IJC recommends comprehensive actions to keep toxic flame retardants out of Great Lakes“)

In the TAP report, the IJC notes that the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment established a task group to provide guidance on the development and implementation of a harmonized approach to Extended Producer Responsibility programs that could be applied across Canada. This effort resulted in a Canada-wide Action Plan for Extended Producer Responsibility, “an approach that should be considered for adoption by other governments,” the report states.

The Canadian council is working on improving the consistency of Extended Producer Responsibility programs in Canada, in collaboration with industry in northern and remote areas, and in the management of construction, renovation and demolition waste. However, a 2016 benchmark study of the program has found consistencies and inconsistencies across programs in Canada.

The Water Quality Board also conducted preliminary research into Extended Producer Responsibility programs around the world, including what has been done in the U.S., Europe, Taiwan, Chile, and South Africa, to better understand how a transboundary  program for the Great Lakes basin could be developed. Based on this research, the Water Quality Board has identified barriers to implementation, such as the difficulty in implementing a program for a legacy contaminant, the challenges of implementing an Extended Producer Responsibility program as either regulated or voluntary, and the difficulty in determining where responsibility should lie in product life cycles.

While many Extended Producer Responsibility programs exist, most of the programs focus on the recycling and safe disposal of electronics and appliances. However, the Water Quality Board identified examples of programs in the U.S. that focus on mattresses, a consumer product containing toxic chemicals such as PBDEs, and their recycling as required by state law.

what happens when a mattress is recycled infographic
Credit: Mattress Recycling Council

In the U.S., states such as California, Connecticut and Rhode Island have enacted laws that require mattress recycling. To offer resources and guidance on this program, a nonprofit called the Mattress Recycling Council was created. Depending on the state in which the consumer, retailer, producer and renovator resides, they have certain rules to follow in accordance with the mattress recycling law.

For example, in California, retailers must not allow the sale of mattresses from manufacturers who have not registered with the recycling council; they must charge a recycling fee on the sale of all mattresses for use in California ($11, which is then sent to the recycling council); and they must allow for the free pick up of a customer’s used mattress.

The recycling council has focused on education on the life cycle of a mattress (through campaigns, events, news articles, etc.) and on the reimbursement of retailers for administrative costs when complying with the program. In 2016, the $11 recycling fee created a revenue stream of more than $40 million, with program expenses (such as collection, transportation, recycling, education and outreach, illegal dumping initiatives, administration, and oversight) of more than $20 million.

The IJC’s TAP concluded that “Extended Producer Responsibility is an approach that should be further implemented in the Great Lakes basin to prevent pollutants from entering the Great Lakes during product use and disposal.”

Raj Bejankiwar is a physical scientist and deputy director at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.

Jessica MacKinnon is an environmental engineer who is completing her master’s in Bioresource Engineering-Integrated Water Resource Management at McGill University. MacKinnon interned with the IJC in 2015.

New Report Confirms 2017 Floods on Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Caused by Extreme Weather

By IJC staff

flooding little sodus bay new york usace
Flooding on Little Sodus Bay in New York, May 2017. Credit: US Army Corps of Engineers

A new report by the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board provides a detailed account of the record-breaking flood of 2017, and what the board did to reduce the levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

A key finding of the report is that outflow rates during 2017 were determined by extreme weather and record-setting water supply conditions. During the winter of 2017, flows were set to avoid ice jams under highly variable temperatures. In spring and early summer, the flows were repeatedly adjusted to reduce and balance upstream and downstream flooding. The board made every effort to minimize impacts and maintain the highest possible outflows without threatening navigation safety.

The report concludes that the board would have faced these same conditions under the previous regulation plan, and that outflows would have been very similar to those prescribed under Plan 2014, a new plan for regulating Lake Ontario outflows that went into effect in January 2017.

observed conditions regulated outflows loslr
The cover of the report, dated May 25, 2018.

Lake Ontario started 2017 slightly below its long-term average level and rose a record-breaking 1.4 meters (about 4.5 feet) by late May. This was due to extreme wet conditions in the Lake Ontario basin, including record precipitation in the April-May timeframe, and above-average inflows from the upper Great Lakes. The widespread wet spring weather also led to record flows in May from the Ottawa River into the St. Lawrence River near Montreal and severe flooding conditions that extended further downstream.

Throughout the spring, the board was faced with releasing water from a flooding Lake Ontario into a flooded St. Lawrence River.

The record rise on Lake Ontario was followed by a record decline of 1.1 meters (about 3.6 feet) from the start of June through December. This was due in part to record outflows from Lake Ontario set by the board during the summer and continued high outflows prescribed by Plan 2014 thereafter. Declining inflows, including a much-needed dry spell at the end of August through September, were also major contributing factors.

Plan 2014 released significantly more water from Lake Ontario than would have been possible prior to the removal of bed rock to enlarge the St. Lawrence River channel when hydropower and Seaway projects were built in the 1950s. In 2017, the peak level on Lake Ontario would have been about 18 centimeters (7 inches) higher without regulation, and extreme high Lake Ontario levels would still be occurring as of June 2018.  Without regulation of outflows, ice jams (that occurred more frequently prior to regulation) would likely have made the flooding worse. And peak levels downstream also would have been significantly higher without regulation.

aerial st. lawrence river flooding montreal transport canada
An aerial photo of flooding of the St. Lawrence downstream of Montreal. Credit: Transport Canada

The report relied on data provided by water management and weather agencies in Canada and the United States, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Centers for Environmental Information, US Army Corps of Engineers, Environment and Climate Change Canada and Canadian Hydrographic Service.

The events of 2017 once again demonstrate the vulnerability of shoreline communities to flooding and erosion. To reduce the risk of future damages, the most effective approach is to make property and infrastructure more resilient to coastal hazards and redouble efforts to prepare for future high water events. This will be a long-term undertaking, but all levels of government and organizations such as the IJC with knowledge about coastal impacts must work together if we wish to reduce the risk of catastrophic damages from the next extreme event.

The board’s report, “Observed Conditions and Regulated Outflows in 2017” is available online, along with a short video on the Causes of the 2017 Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Flood.

flooding olcott ny
Flooding in Olcott, New York, in May 2017. Credit: US Army Corps of Engineers