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A sobering history calls for a concerted effort to save the world’s largest freshwater lake system

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes

Dan Egan
384 pp.
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The Death and Life of the Great Lakes is unusual for a new book, having already netted a “work-in-progress” award from the Columbia Journalism School and Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism in 2015. Living up to this early acclaim, it is easy to read, offering well-paced, intellectually stimulating arguments, bolstered by well-researched and captivating narratives.

The book chronicles the ecological demise of the Great Lakes. After the introduction, which doubles as an imagery-rich executive summary, journalist Dan Egan, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, groups the chapters into three parts: “The Front Door,” which focuses on the changes that occurred when the Great Lakes were connected to the Atlantic Ocean; “The Back Door,” which examines the impact of connecting the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River; and “The Future,” which highlights the potential threats posed by water siphoning and climate change, as well as glimmers of hope for ecological resilience.

In the book’s first chapter, “Carving a fourth seacoast,” Egan demonstrates how a series of human-made canals and locks, built to advance early military goals and with an eye toward transforming previously landlocked cities to global shipping hubs, gradually linked the Great Lakes to previously separate bodies of water. These efforts opened the gates to a host of invasive and introduced species that soon radically altered the lakes’ ecology.


A pair of parasitic sea lampreys feed on a brown trout.

Egan’s portrayal of the diverse and niche-specific native lake trout species that once enjoyed the top spot in the Great Lakes’ food chain brings to mind Darwin’s finches. “Some populations thrived amid mudflats or boulder-strewn open waters hundreds of feet deep,” he writes. “… Some spawned in cobble, others on rocky reefs and still others in areas where the lakebed was smothered in algae.”

Egan shows how the complex native ecology of the lakes began to unravel around 1921, when improvements to canals between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie enabled the invasion of the parasitic sea lamprey, which in conjunction with overfishing devastated the lake trout populations by 1950.
The top-predator position was soon filled by invasive river herrings, known as alewives, which proved to be voracious and highly fecund. By the late 1960s, 90% of the fish flesh in the Great Lakes was alewives.

In a stroke of what some would call genius and others wrongheadedness, a fisheries manager introduced a self-perpetuating population of Pacific salmon to Lake Michigan in 1966. This led to a prosperous recreational fishing industry that boomed in the late 1980s and crashed by the 2000s after the salmon decimated its one food source, the alewives.

In the midst of the salmon crash, zebra and quagga mussels invaded the lakes, carried in from the Atlantic in the ballast water of ocean-going ships. The mussels suppressed any potential ecological recovery by consuming much of the nutrients available in the Great Lakes and have subsequently spread to water bodies throughout the western United States. Meanwhile, DNA evidence suggests that the rapacious Asian carp has recently entered the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River, leaving decimated fish populations in its wake.

In “North America’s ‘dead’ sea,” Egan ominously explains how toxic algal blooms caused by fertilizer runoff pose a threat to the 40 million people dependent on the Great Lakes for water. Algal blooms, he notes, are what rendered the water in Toledo, Ohio, unsafe and potentially deadly for human consumption, or even bathing, in the summer of 2014.

Concluding on a hopeful note. Egan describes how native species in Lake Huron are recovering by feasting on invasive gobies. He also details how native whitefish in Lake Michigan have adapted physiologically to consume invasive mussels. However, without statistics, it is difficult to gauge the extent of this supposed recovery.

Egan often jumps through time, frequently focusing on a single lake without detailing whether and when similar events happened in the other lakes. This works well narratively, but a critical reader will struggle to form a comprehensive overview of the magnitude of each problem. A few graphics would have helped readers track the overlapping changes to various species’ populations over time and geography. It would also have been useful to present at least one consistent indicator (e.g., lake trout population estimates) of the effects of the various perturbations he describes.

Egan misses an opportunity to describe, in detail, the policies that helped shape the Great Lakes, touching only briefly on governance structures, such as the Clean Water Act and the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. However, he does advocate for specific solutions, consistently returning to the suggestion that closing the human-made breaches to natural geological barriers could halt the lakes’ continued decline.

Overall, this is an impressively well-written book, worthy of the accolades it has already earned. It will likely, however, leave the reader wanting more details on a few key points.

About the author

The reviewer is at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85281, USA.