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Making a Great Lake Superior

The "Making a Great Lake Superior 2007" Conference started with a bang and smoke, or more precisely, the throb of drumming and an Ojibwe pipe ceremony. Designed to increase collaboration among people and organizations that are invested in Lake Superior's well-being, the conference exceeded organizers' expectations with 450 attendees. "Making a Great Lake Superior," which spanned the last three days of October in Duluth, Minn., attracted scientists, government officials, natural resource managers, educators, the media, and citizens from around Lake Superior.

"We're incredibly pleased with the momentum this conference generated," said Jesse Schomberg, Minnesota Sea Grant's coastal communities educator, who took a major role in organizing the conference on behalf of the Great Lakes Sea Grant Network and with the help of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (Liz LaPlante and Janet Keough), Environment Canada (John Marsden), and others. "The feedback has been terrific. A lot of important, useful, and diverse information about Lake Superior was exchanged."

The conference focused on 12 priorities including human health, invasive species, Areas of Concern, and fisheries. Climate change and the most recent Lake Superior research findings grabbed headlines due to their emphasis during the conference and two media briefings. During one briefing, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty stood beside polar explorer Will Steger to announce their plans to tour the state together talking about global climate change's impacts and advocating for solutions.

In the other briefing, three Lake Superior experts gave reporters sweeping overviews of contaminants, fisheries, and research opportunities before hustling across the hall to deliver a more in-depth address to a full audience of conference attendees. Deb Swackhamer, professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Minnesota said, "I'm going to tell a story about the ghosts of contaminants past." After talking about lingering legacy pollutants like PCBs, DDT, and toxaphene, she said that the impacts of today's chemicals are harder to see and measure, which makes studying them more challenging.

Mark Ebener, fishery assessment biologist with the Inter-Tribal Fisheries and Assessment Program, told reporters that fish, especially whitefish and lake herring (cisco), are thriving in Lake Superior. He called it a "siscowet lake, not a lean trout lake" despite noting that it probably contains more lake trout now than it did in the 1920s -- the heyday of the trout fishery.

Carl Richards, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Mid-Continent Ecology Division, faced the press to describe how advances in technology, like robotic sensors, have significantly changed the way research is conducted. "We can move beyond educated guesses," he commented. "The types of questions we can ask have changed, and how we look at questions has changed."

Several facets of the three-day conference broke the confines of tradition. One was the deliberate effort to mix science, management, policy, and education perspectives. Another was the emphasis put on "greening" the meeting and the venue. Conference organizers sought to reduce the resources required to transport, feed, and inform participants. The Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center staff served local and when possible, organic, food; recycling and composting continued as habit. After calculating the amount of carbon consumed beyond the daily norm for 450 people, the conference organizers intend to purchase 75 tons of carbon credits. The credits will go toward alternative energy projects including a solar array, wind turbines, and methane production from dairy farms and wastewater treatment plants. This $900 offset should push the conference beyond carbon neutral to carbon negative.

Several participants even won awards for their efforts to attend the conference in a sustainable manner (see sidebar).

In addition to an art exhibition, vendor booths, poster and oral presentations, and think-tank sessions on topics such as research directions and management issues, 30 conference-goers left with an estimate of their mercury load. In exchange for a chunk of hair and information on the number of fish meals eaten per month, Carri Lohse-Hanson of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency showed that people who consume more fish tend to have higher concentrations of mercury in their hair, which is consistent with more scientific studies.

The consensus of the presenters and attendees seems to be that people need to remain vigilant about protecting Lake Superior from the consequences of coastal development, invasive species, and climate change.

"I feel that people left the conference with a new energy and new sense of urgency," said Schomberg. "Achieving our regional -- let alone global, environmental, and economic goals -- requires both."

Visit the conference Web site (www.seagrant.umn.edu/superior2007) in the coming months to find out what participants had to say about their experience at the "Making a Great Lake Superior" Conference.

Return to January 2008 Seiche

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