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Great Lakes Ecological Change Detectives

Great Lakes Environmental Indicators project sample sites.

More than half of the world's population lives along the coasts and over 90 percent of fish hail from coastal areas. As the number of humans on the planet presses towards seven billion, deterioration of the coastal region is evident in beach closings, poor water quality, and loss of habitat and biodiversity. The U.S. Great Lakes coastline is no exception; it is heavily industrialized and includes some of the largest cities in the nation.

In light of the importance of coasts, 27 investigators and an army of assistants have been collecting, measuring, analyzing and digitizing conditions of the U.S. Great Lakes coastline for the Great Lakes Environmental Indicator (GLEI) project. Since the four-year project began with funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2001, their search for environmental indicators, their Holy Grail, has required them to identify characteristics of the Great Lakes coasts that can be used efficiently and economically to gauge ecological health.

Itís an intensive and extensive quest, which Lucinda Johnson, senior research associate at the University of Minnesota's Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI), explained during talks hosted by Minnesota Sea Grant in Duluth and Grand Portage. The GLEI ecological change detectives have been testing hundreds of potential environmental indicators and are on the verge of recommending a list that can be successfully used to monitor environmental health.

"I imagine this will be the richest data set any of us will have to work with in our lifetimes," said Johnson. "Itís both exciting and daunting to sift through all of this information."

Along with landscape elements that cover millions of acres, the research includes the microscopic world of diatoms. Each diatom species (over 1,800 have been identified in the Great Lakes alone) has its own intricate silica shell (frustule) and thrives in particular water conditions. Because the glassy frustules don't decompose, GLEI researchers are using them to characterize both present and past water quality and habitat and to develop predictive models.

Both fish and invertebrates (non-microscopic animals without backbones) serve as indicators of environmental stresses such as PCB pollution, sedimentation, or nutrient over-abundance.

"While we know much about factors influencing fish communities, we know much less about invertebrate communities and the environmental factors that influence their health," said Johnson.

One example of a fish serving as an indicator is the male bullhead, which can be used to identify the presence of endocrine disrupting chemicals in the water if they produce a protein normally found in female fish. It is this sensitivity exhibited by otherwise tough-guy bullheads that is allowing GLEI researchers to identify which chemicals have the most estrogenic activity and threaten fish reproduction in the Great Lakes.

The climax of the GLEI story is being written this year as the researchers synthesize their findings and compare notes. Their recommendations will include comments about indicator uncertainty, cost-effectiveness, and evaluations of how environmental pressures relate to specific indicators in the Great Lakes. With these expert recommendations about useful indicators and effective monitoring designs for guidance, Great Lakes agencies and groups will have the tools and instructions with which to keep Great Lakes environments in good health.

By Sharon Moen
June 2004

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