Great Lakes Restoration Initiative

There’s no shortage of troubling news reports these days about our shared land border with the United States. What we don’t hear about are the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River that makes up about half our border.

The Whitehouse recently Proposed 97% budget cuts to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and a 25% cut to the Environmental Protection Agency. 125 mayors from Canadian and U.S. cities situated along the shores of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence are up in arms.

(Transcript of Lawrence Gunther’s bi-weekly 12-minute segment on Live from Studio 5 broadcast over AMI TV and Audio across Canada)

Q. Welcome back Lawrence, what would the proposed Cuts to the restoration initiative mean in real terms?

A. With respect to the restoration initiative, the budget would go from $300-million to $10-million and put an end to many important restoration initiatives. Foreign fish species like Asian Carp are just waiting for the chance to enter the lakes, and Lamprey populations could easily rebound if mitigation efforts were to stop. All of which could spell disaster for the $7-billion annual commercial and sport fishery.

Q. I didn’t know there was commercial fishing still taking place on the Great Lakes. What sort of fish are they harvesting, and just how big is the fishery?

A. It’s mostly on the U.S. side of the great lakes, but Canada has licensed commercial fishing boats working as well. Yellow and Green Perch, Walleye, Silver Bass and Whitefish make up most of the catch. Lake Trout are still off limits since their population ran into trouble over 100 years ago.

Q. Which is more important, commercial fishing or recreational fishing.

A By far the biggest economic contributor is recreational fishing. From fishing guides who take guests fishing for a day, to people who travel to the area to experience the tremendous quality of fishing. From Salmon to Musky, we have incredible fishing opportunities.

Q. Was there really that much destruction to the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence caused by industry?

A. Back in the 60’s there was so much pollution going into the rivers that empty into the Great Lakes that they were catching fire. Not just one, but as many as a half dozen.

Q. Have the toxic hot-spots now been cleaned up?

A. Over half of the known toxic hot-spots have now been cleaned up. Countless dump truck loads of contaminated lake and river bottom have been dredged, and many formally dead rivers and bays are now teaming with wildlife.

Q. Is the water safe to drink, or are there still concerns?

A. Over 17-million people who live along the shores of the great lakes and St. Lawrence get their drinking water from the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence. It seems amazing, but it’s true, and just as much water is returned after being treated. However, only about 7% of the water in the Great Lakes is renewed each year, and it could very well be the case that when you’re drinking water that comes from the lakes, there’s a pretty good chance it had once passed through a dinosaur.

Q. What concerns you the most about the proposed budget cuts to the restoration work now underway?

A. In the past 50 years over 175 foreign invasive species have been introduced into the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence. Not all of it has been harmful, but things like Gobies, Lamprey and Zebra mussels have radically altered the aquatic world that lays hidden beneath the waves.

A. If the same degree of changes to the aquatic environment were to take place in our forests, people would be apoplectic. Try to imagine a relatively dark world full of weeds and green fish of all sizes. Fish that evolved specialized non-visual senses and skills to survive in extreme low light conditions. Then, introduce a vampire fish that can sneak up on them, attach themselves to their bodies, and literally suck all the blood out of them over the next couple days. That’s what Lamprey did when they got into the river and lakes in the 1950’s.

A. Then comes along these tiny little black and white striped muscles the size of your pinky nail. How could something so small pose a problem, you might ask? Well, when they multiply to the point that every square centimeter of the lake bottom is covered by Zebra Mussels, and each one is filtering 1.5 litres of water each day, the water goes from being very dark and murky, to crystal clear.

A. Native fish that have extremely light sensitive eyes have only limited places where they can go to shield their eyes. Smaller fish that once found safety in the dark now stand out like jellybeans in a bowl ready to be eaten.

A. Then comes along Gobies. Tiny 10 cm fish that don’t swim but instead hop around on the lake bottom. No big deal you might think, until native fish species try to lay eggs in nests on the bottom, only to turn around and find a dozen Gobies gobbling them down as fast as they can lay them. I can go on, but I think you get the picture.

Q. Is there any chance that things can be put back the way they were?

A. I don’t want to promote some sort of fish racism, but no, you can’t go back. Their world has changed, and as far as the Great Lakes go, keeps changing about every ten or so years as new non-native species are introduced. It’s not as bad as it once was now that ships have to empty their bilges before they start their trip up the St. Lawrence. However, there’s a whole new group of super invaders lining up in Chicago just waiting for the electric fences the U.S. Army Core of Engineers erected in the man-made shipping canals built to connect Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. If these Asian Carp gain a fin-hold in the Great Lakes, the next change could be catastrophic.