Having lived on the shore of Lake Erie for 20 years, the new book by Dan Egan caught my interest. I was there when the Cuyahoga River caught fire and when the death of Lake Erie was pronounced. I vividly remember, too, not being able to swim in the lake because of an outflow of sewage after summer rains.
But Death and Life of the Great Lakes (DLGL) is about more than being able to swim and more a study of the unintended consequences of human intervention in the vast ecosystem called The Great Lakes, one extended system from the north of Lake Superior to the Atlantic Ocean via the Saint Lawrence River.
For thousands of years this system was closed and free from invasive species until human alteration: the Erie Canal linking Lake Ontario to the Hudson River and the digging of the Welland Canal to allow shipping around Niagara Falls. Later the direction of Chicago River was changed to send sewage down to the Mississippi instead of into Lake Michigan. These interventions were successful in producing economic prosperity in the Great Lakes region while at the same time they have led to the demise of commercial and sport fishing and ecological disasters.
The culprits are small creatures which hitch a ride on boat hulls from all over the world and even smaller creatures released in ballast water from the same ships. DLGL chronicles the insertion of these invasive species and the laws and other attempts used to rid the lakes of species which prevent native fish from thriving. The vastness of the ecosystem and the multiple legal jurisdictions which regulate it do not make for easy solutions.
Author Dan Egan has spent over 10 years reporting on the Great Lakes for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the book is based on his research and experience starting as a kid fishing in Lake Michigan. He covers all of the issues: the politics, the science, the economic consequences and the intangible ethical dilemmas involved. DLGL is a great read for anyone interested in understanding why algae bloom in Lake Erie and not in Lake Superior, why perch and walleye are now so scarce and why creatures not visible to the naked eye can cause an ecosystem to change forever.