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April 11, 2008     Post 6
Earthday Lake Watch

Earth Day Lake Watching

Spring Midges

As part of my current effort to update my first book on Lake Ontario that was published 13 years ago, I've been surveying the Internet for recent updates on the Great Lakes. A scientific group issues “state of the lakes” summaries each year, several of which are posted on the EPA's Great Lakes lab website. After forty years of trying to clean things up, the reports often describe the status of the lakes' various indicators of environmental quality as mixed.

I am a naturally pessimistic person and when some say that the Great lakes ecosystems are near a tipping point, I naturally tend to believe that. In the early to mid 1990s when my first book was in progress, things seemed to be improving here. Thanks to those busy little zillions of zebra mussels, the water even looked a lot cleaner. Poor murky old Port Bay and the over enriched upper Bay of Quinte were getting a few weeds again. And once or twice I saw an osprey fly overhead.

Lately though, there have been more fish kills and bird die offs. There was that hot summer when dozens of small mouth bass came ashore and I saw the wingless flies by one corpse. Then there was the rainy summer when we had our fist big botulism outbreak-dying gulls and terns of summer and dead ducks and loons and grebes of fall. And last spring almost every time I went for a sail in May I saw some kind of dead fish or fishes floating around on the open lake.

A scientist would caution correctly that it's premature to conclude anything from an isolated observation like that. But experience says in thirty years of sailing in May on the lake, I've never seen anything like last year's fish kill before.

Yet amidst all this bad news I detect faint glimmers of hope. A report on disappearing Diporeia notes that the pesky quagga mussel (a deep water relative of the zebra mussel that's been taking over the bottom of the lake) actually showed population declines at some sampling points recently. Pockets of native scuds, an important part of the lake's food web, could persist and perhaps eventually repopulate the lake's bottom. Great Lakes sturgeon still somehow cling to life and even apparently occasionally manage to reproduce. A couple weeks ago near a Lake Ontario tributary I saw a mink, an animal that is sensitive to toxins in fish. And a few years ago a small fish called the deepwater sculpin that hadn't been seen since 1936 showed up in a trawl here.

Life persists with incredible tenacity. A couple decades ago we were down to thirty pairs of cormorants on Lake Ontario. Now they're everywhere and people are asking for a hunting season for cormorants. Perhaps our fish will accommodate to the new diseases and the viruses infecting them will become less virulent. Maybe a few pockets of native birds and plants will persist and be able to re-populate or co-exist with the newcomers. And maybe, just possibly, humans will begin to recognize more widely the dollar value of “ecological services” and factor it in to the almighty GDP and the market place. The very term defining the concept is hopeful.

Goodness knows people are not necessarily very good at managing their money.. But the idea of at least placing a price tag on the water purification and flood control associated with a lake shore forest or marsh is a good first step. Before we can start paying down our credit card accounts with Mother Nature we first have to acknowledge that they exist. Them maybe we can work to avoid foreclosure.

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