Leo Walsh's Reviews > The Death and Life of the Great Lakes

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan
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it was amazing

Journalist Dan Egan's The Death and Life of the Great Lakes is a dense, detailed but fascinating look at where I hang my hat, on the shores of Lake Erie, one of the Great Lakes. I lived through much of what Egan writes of here. When I was growing up in the late 70;s and early 80's, Lake Erie had recovered from the algal blooms that had choked it and the nasty pollution that caused the Cuyahoga to burn. Still, I heard about these incidents. Just like I'd heard my father moan about the decline and rebound of his favorite fishing prey, yellow perch and walleye.

My father was a traditionalist. taught his kids to fish for classic Great Lakes food species, like perch and walleye. It wasn't until after college that I learned the value of stocked trout. I missed the salmon boom, but still love to plow the rivers during the autumn and mild winter days to catch steelhead trout, which are stocked "anadromous" rainbow trout, who spawn in the rivers and grow fat during the summers on the lake.

Thing is, I never paid attention to how unnatural that was. Egan makes it clear, detailing the origins of the stocking. In the 50's and 60's, alewives invaded the Great Lakes via the brand-new Saint Lawrence Seaway. At the same time, pollution and another invader, lamprey eels, were killing the lake's native top predator, the lake trout. So to save the fisheries, scientists needed to kill lampreys, which they did, and then establish a predator population to control alewives.

Problem was, lake trout were a poor game fish. Like walleye, they provided a poor fight. Great eating, but not "sporting," like the spunky but nasty-tasting native smallmouth. Great Lakes governments wanted to create a sports fishing/ tourism industry, and needed a fish that fought like the smallmouth but was tasty. So they enlisted Howard Tanner, a Michigan-born fisheries biologist who learned his craft managing the near sterile southwestern reservoirs, enhancing their appeal to sports fisherman.

Thus empowered. Tanner introduced coho and chinook, who were spectacular fighters, tail walking and stripping line. Those fish feasted on the alewives, controlling their invasion. And sales of fishing boats and equipment caused the desired economic boom. Thing is, the salmon proved too effective at their jobs, and soon the salmon fisheries collapsed. What's more, since they are a managed species, it took funding to keep the ball rolling.

Luckily, the native lake trout are rebounding. Freed from the lampreys and foul water, they are re-establishing themselves as the Great Lakes' top predator.

Tanner's folly is the sort that makes me laugh. I love stories where bright, well-intentioned people create a brilliant solution to today's problem... that often backfire tomorrow. Which leads to the next solution and backfire. And the next. Regardless, man leaps from success turned failure to success turned failure with no loss of optimism. There's something noble and creative about that, seems to me.

Egan also spends considerable pages addressing the Lakes' most pressing problem circa 2017, the zebra and quagga mussel infestation. Like most Great Lakes natives, I'm aware of the problem. It's often on the news, especially when they clog up and important pipe. Still, Egan gives those reports perspective, an often-missing component on contemporary newscasts who deal in the sensational (if it bleeds, it leads), often sacrificing accuracy for dumbed-down ratings. So instead of interviewing an Ohio State scientist, they'll quickly cover the mussel-caused problem, and cut off to cover a tragedy, whether that tragedy is a murder, a drive-by or some other dramatic "pow."

Egan fills that void, providing substance. What I found most intriguing was the possibility that, as Global Warming increases droughts in the American west, that having fresh water could make the Great Lakes the sunbelt of the latter half of the 21st century. But Egan also made me aware of threats I didn't know existed, Asian bighead and silver carp, invasive species that are heading up the Mississippi towards the Lake Michigan. I also learned that nature created the Great Lakes and Mississippi watersheds as separate, but that Chicago created a sewage and shipping canal, connecting those sheds via the Illinois river... so they could flush their sewage downstream. Typical. NIMBY. And screw your neighbors, like downstream St. Louis.

On the fun side, I also learned about a super-funny event called the Redneck Fishing Tournament held on the Illinois River. Where locals exploit the invasive silver carp's propensity to jump several feet into the air when a boat engine spooks them. So the locals gather, swill some beer, and have a tourney. Where, instead of hook and line, they spook the fish, and catch the leaping critters in a landing net. check out the Redneck Fishing Tournament on YouTube. It's gave me a few chuckles.

Recommended for science, history and policy wonks. Five stars.
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Reading Progress

May 9, 2017 – Shelved
May 9, 2017 – Shelved as: to-read
August 11, 2017 – Started Reading
August 14, 2017 – Finished Reading

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