Feast and Famine in the Great Lakes

The ecology of the Great Lakes has been struggling for many years. Parts of them are dead and others are dying. “Feast and Famine in the Great Lakes” examines the reasons why.

A new report sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation, “Feast and Famine in the Great Lakes:  How Nutrients and Invasive Species Interact to Overwhelm the Coasts and Starve Offshore Waters”, looks at two major contributors to the ecological problems facing the Great Lakes.

Excess Phosphorus

The first major contributor is excess nutrients, particularly phosphorus. The excess nutrients come mainly from runoff from industrial agriculture.

Phosphorus feeds algae, causing the toxic algal blooms that shut down parts of the lakes to recreation every year. The algal blooms, in turn, use up the oxygen in the water, suffocating other animals and plants.

Invasive Species

The second major contributor is invasive species. The zebra mussel is famous for clogging intake and outflow pipes of industry, municipalities, and recreational boaters.

The zebra mussel also has a talent for concentrating nutrients in near shore waters, thus leaving little for fish in deeper waters to feed on.


When the problems of excess nutrients in the Great Lakes were first understood in the mid-1900s, people came together and cleaned up. The Clean Water Act and other environmental legislation of the 1960s were part of the solution.

These solutions concentrated on cleaning up point sources – sewage treatment facilities, for example – and were largely successful. By the 1990s, many of the ecosystems of the Great Lakes had recovered significantly. There are still improvements to be made in cleaning up point sources and they must continue.

Additional solutions will have to look at how to decrease or prevent runoff from industrial farms. Strengthening soil conservation efforts and increasing buffer zones between row crops and water are just two of the many suggestions found in the report.

Invasive species are a tougher problem. After all, they wouldn’t be invasive if they were easy to control. The report has some ideas that are fairly complicated (but doable) and I wouldn’t do them justice trying to fit them in a small article. “Feast and Famine” is 44 pages long and available for free online.

What Can You Do?

Homes and lawns account for a very small portion of the problem of the Great Lakes. However, every little bit helps. “Feast and Famine” has these helpful tips:

  • Use only phosphorus-free fertilizer that is designated for lawns and apply in small quantities and less often.
  • Do not apply fertilizer within 25 feet of any body of water.
  • Maintain your septic system.
  • Reduce runoff by installing rain gardens or rain barrels.

Image by JumpinJimmyJava, used with Creative Commons license.

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Author: Heather Carr

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