Scientific indicators provide ‘big picture’ of the state of the Great Lakes
A set of environmental indicators used in a Canadian Government report is expected to give a more reliable picture of the health of the Great Lakes.
The report, The State of the Great Lakes, presents information based on 19 of a set of 80 indicators developed over the past two years by scientists – participants of the 1998 State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference (SOLEC) held in Buffalo, New York.
The 19 indicators selected are representative of the 80 indicators that the parties will be reporting on biennially and also are indicators for which information was readily available.
“Indicators have been used to assess the state of the Great Lakes before,” Dr. Harvey Shear, Science Advisor to Environment Canada, Ontario Region told edie , “but in the past they were developed on the fly, going on best scientific opinion. However, people at previous conferences said we needed a more rigorous process so we have proposed this set of 80 indicators. Initially we have only been able to use 19 of those to assess the state of the Lakes, but we hope to have 25-30 of them in use by October 2000, looking at indicators across the spectrum of the 80. By 2004 we will hopefully be reporting on all of them.”
The use of the 19 indicators to draw upThe State of the Great Lakes marks a transition to a more unified reporting method. The US and Canadian Governments hope this will provide a consistent overview of the condition of the Great Lakes Basin ecosystem, the stresses on the ecosystem, and the human responses to those stresses.
“By using a set of easily understood indicators it will become easier to assess how far we’ve come and how much farther we have to go to fully address the complex problems facing the Lakes,” said Shear.
The Governments of Canada and the United States are parties to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and worked in partnership on the report. The Governments intend to use the indicators as a basis for monitoring and future research.
Paul Horvatin, of the US EPA’s Great Lakes Program office said, “The SOLEC indicators are expected to greatly influence future monitoring and data gathering efforts. They will allow government and NGOs, industry and citizens to share information and resources to better track the health of the Great Lakes basin ecosystem.”
Overall, the report shows that the state of the Lakes has not changed significantly since 1997:
- Fish advisories still exist in all the Great Lakes due to pollution. Infants, the elderly, sports fishers, pregnant women and native people are at potential risk.
- Air quality causes health threats to vulnerable persons. The report shows a correlation between an increase in ground level ozone and the number of hospital admissions due to respiratory conditions.
- Beach closures, due to high bacteria counts, remain an issue throughout the basin. However, concentrations of many contaminants in human tissue have declined over the past few decades.
- Phosphorus is at or below the targets. Strict loading targets must be maintained as the human population in the basin increases, the report says.
- Acid rain continues to be a problem in the basin, mainly to the areas on the Canadian Shield. Sulphur dioxide decreases of 30% and 54% have occurred in the US and Canada respectively. However, rain is acidic throughout most of the region and is likely to remain so for the coming decade.
- While the total coastal wetland area is decreasing, some restoration efforts have been successful.
- Areas close to the shore continue to be adversely affected by human settlement, industry and recreation.
- Exotic species, such as the zebra mussel and the round goby, have caused the decline of native clam populations at certain sites and are intensifying the circulation of contaminants within the food web. The round goby could pose a threat to the integrity of the biological community in the Great Lakes.
- The endangered peregrine falcon appears to be making a comeback. Populations of the giant Canada goose and the double-crested cormorant, two species once near extinction, have exploded.
- Populations of wetland-nesting bird species, such as the Black Tern and American Bittern, are declining. Habitat loss in coastal wetlands is likely the cause.
The report also makes recommendations for the protection and preservation of terrestrial, coastal wetland or aquatic areas along the shoreline of the Great Lakes basin that sustain rare and diverse plant and animal communities, and landscapes of special quality. Known as Biodiversity Investment Areas (BIA), the report recommends:
- the merging of the three BIA approaches into a single set of coastal BIAs
- locally-based assessments to identify the most important species, communities, physical features and processes supporting biodiversity, stresses upon biodiversity, and conditions needed to protect the ecosystems
- finding ways to implement the BIA concept through local groups, agencies, government bodies and processes.