One of the most engaging books on ecology I’ve read recently is Dan Egan’s The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. One way to understand this book is to think about what happened when humans developed ways of getting large vessels beyond Niagara Falls. Egan writes, “About 170 feet high, the falls that tumble over the Niagara escarpment near present-day Buffalo, New York, are nowhere near the world’s tallest or even largest by volume. But they were among the most ecologically important because they created an impassable barrier for fish and other aquatic life trying to migrate upstream from Lake Ontario into the other four Great Lakes.”
Attempts to alter the St. Lawrence River to make shipping into Lake Ontario easier began in the 17th century but surmounting the Niagara escarpment didn’t happen until the Erie Canal did so in 1825 (the Welland Canal was opened four years later). What Egan’s book chronicles is the impact these connections had upon the Great Lakes over the following 200 years. Here’s the stark summary: “Pulling the Niagara plug that had protected the lakes for millennia triggered an ecological calamity . . . .” You’ll need to read the Pulitzer Prize finalist to take in the whole narrative, but along the way you’ll come across surprises like these:
“The water of Lake Ontario below Niagara Falls once teemed with Atlantic salmon before they were exterminated in the 19th century by overfishing and habitat destruction.”
“In the early 1970s two-thirds of America’s lakes, rivers and coastal waters were unsafe for fishing or swimming. By 2014 that number had been slashed in half.”
“Asian carp biomass in some stretches of rivers in the Mississippi basin is thought to be more than 90 percent.”
Egan does an excellent job communicating the scientific and cultural aspects (there’s lots of money involved) of this story. If you’re interested in learning about the ecological history of the Great Lakes, this is a great place to start. The other place to start is by getting to the shoreline of one of these amazing bodies of water.