The Laurentian Great Lakes are a continentally- and globally-significant natural resource containing approximately 22,900 cubic kilometers of water, representing nearly one-fifth of the standing freshwater on the Earth’s surface. The Great Lakes drainage basin covers more land than England, Scotland, and Wales combined, and the lakes together have over 17,000 kilometers of shoreline. Perhaps it is easiest to visualize this chain of lakes as a gigantic staircase, where the top step is Lake Superior and the water descends down a series of lake steps to the Atlantic Ocean. There is little doubt as to why the Great Lakes are often considered one of the natural wonders of the world.

The Great Lakes are a shared resource between Canada and the U.S. Approximately 34 million people in the U.S. and Canada live in the Great Lakes Basin – 8% of the U.S. population and about 32% of Canada’s population. Both countries depend on the Great Lakes for drinking water, transportation, economic opportunities, power, and recreation. For example, 48 million people in the U.S. and Canada get their drinking water from the Great Lakes. Cargo shipments on the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway system generate $34.6 billion of economic activity and 227,000 jobs in Canada and the U.S. These lakes directly generate more than 1.5 million jobs and $60 billion in wages annually and provide the backbone for a $5 trillion regional economy that would be one of the largest in the world if it stood alone as a country. Recreation on the Great Lakes – including boating, hunting, fishing, and birding opportunities – generates more than $52 billion annually for the region. Commercial, recreational, and tribal fisheries alone are collectively valued at more than $7 billion annually and support more than 75,000 jobs. Nearly 25% of Canadian and 7% of U.S agricultural production comes from the Great Lakes Basin. Clearly, the Great Lakes are essential to the sustainability of the region.

It is not surprising that because of human population density and the level of commercial and industrial development, there have been many impacts on the Great Lakes. From extirpation of beaver during the Fur Trade, to sedimentation and loss of habitat during the logging era, to waterborne disease epidemics in the early-1900s, to cultural eutrophication starting in the 1950s and 1960s, to toxic substances’ contamination as a result of the industrial revolution, to introduction of exotic species in more recent years, the Great Lakes have experienced substantial degradation and perturbation.

As a result, Canada and the U.S. have a long-standing commitment to work together to resolve problems along their common border. For example, the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty signed by the U.S. and Great Britain (on behalf of Canada) provided the principles and mechanisms for preventing and resolving disputes concerning water quantity and quality along the entire border (United States and Great Britain, 1909). Through this Treaty, both the U.S. and Canada must agree to any project that would change the natural levels or flows of any boundary waters. The scope of the Boundary Waters Treaty covers more than 130 rivers and lakes intersecting the Canada-U.S. border that stretches some 8,800 kilometers, 40% of which is water. Far ahead of its time, the Boundary Waters Treaty also stated that waters shall not be polluted on either side of the boundary to the injury of health or property on the other side (United States and Great Britain, 1909). As such, this Treaty is often described as the world’s first environmental agreement. The Boundary Waters Treaty and its International Joint Commission (IJC) were visionary in 1909 and today stand among the world’s most successful models for binational cooperation and for resolving trans-boundary environmental issues.

The IJC is an independent and objective advisor to the U.S. and Canada, and works for the common good of both countries in preventing and resolving disputes between the two countries under the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty. More recently, IJC processes have fostered use of a systematic and comprehensive ecosystem approach.

The Canada-U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was initially signed in 1972 and revised in 1978, 1987, and 2012. As such, this Agreement has often been described as an evolving instrument for ecosystem-based management (Vallentyne and Beeton, 1988). It represents a commitment between the U.S. and Canada to restore and protect the waters of the Great Lakes, and provides a framework for identifying binational priorities and implementing actions that improve water quality and ecosystem health. Canada and the U.S. are responsible for final decision-making under the Agreement and for the involvement and participation of State and Provincial governments, Tribal Governments, municipal governments, watershed management agencies, and other stakeholders. The IJC’s role under this Agreement is to analyze information provided by the governments, assess the effectiveness of programs in both countries, and report on progress toward meeting the Agreement’s objectives.

Since 1973, the IJC’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board, the principal advisor to the IJC on matters pertaining to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, has periodically assessed the state of the Great Lakes. As part of these assessments, the Great Lakes Water Quality Board has identified specific harbors, embayments, river mouths, and connecting channels where one of more jurisdictional standards or general or specific water quality objectives of the Agreement were not being met (IJC 1985). These objectives and standards were being exceeded in spite of implementation of pollution control programs. Initially termed “problem areas”, these areas were later called Areas of Concern (AOCs).

The list of AOCs changed over time due to implementation of remedial and preventive programs and improvements in water quality, and the emergence of new problems and/or reinterpretation of the significance of earlier reports. The major problems identified have also changes in response to the evolution of scientific understanding of water quality problems (i.e. from recognition of bacterial pollution to eutrophication to toxic substances contamination to loss of habitat and biodiversity), improved ability to detect and measure problems, and progress in implementing remedial and preventive actions (Hartig and Thomas 1988).

Despite progress in abating bacterial and phosphorus pollution in many AOCs, the Great Lakes Water Quality Board reported in 1985 that progress had been stalled in 42 AOCs where general or specific objectives of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement were not being met and such failure had caused or had likely caused impairment of beneficial use or of the area’s ability to support aquatic life (Figure 1). A 43rd AOC was identified in in 1991 (i.e. Presque Isle Bay, Erie, Pennsylvania, USA). Impairment of beneficial use means a change in the chemical, physical, or biological integrity of the Great Lakes ecosystem sufficient to cause any of 14 beneficial use impairments (Table 1).

Figure 1.

Areas of Concern in the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem identified by the United States and Canada.

Figure 1.

Areas of Concern in the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem identified by the United States and Canada.

Table 1.

Beneficial use impairments identified in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the number of AOCs that identified each BUI in 1987; 42 AOCs were identified in 1987 (Hartig, 1988).

Beneficial Use ImpairmentNumber of AOCs
Restrictions of fish and wildlife consumption 38 
Tainting of fish and wildlife flavor 
Degradation of fish and wildlife populations 18 
Fish tumors or other deformities 17 
Bird or animal deformities or reproductive problems 
Degradation of benthos 40 
Restrictions on dredging activities 31 
Eutrophication or undesirable algae 21 
Restrictions on drinking water consumption, or taste and odor problems 
Beach closings 
Degradation of aesthetics 19 
Added costs to agriculture or industry 
Degradation of phytoplankton or zooplankton populations 28 
Loss of fish and wildlife habitat 17 
Beneficial Use ImpairmentNumber of AOCs
Restrictions of fish and wildlife consumption 38 
Tainting of fish and wildlife flavor 
Degradation of fish and wildlife populations 18 
Fish tumors or other deformities 17 
Bird or animal deformities or reproductive problems 
Degradation of benthos 40 
Restrictions on dredging activities 31 
Eutrophication or undesirable algae 21 
Restrictions on drinking water consumption, or taste and odor problems 
Beach closings 
Degradation of aesthetics 19 
Added costs to agriculture or industry 
Degradation of phytoplankton or zooplankton populations 28 
Loss of fish and wildlife habitat 17 

As a result of the recommendation of the Great Lakes Water Quality Board, the eight Great Lakes states and the Province of Ontario, with support from the federal governments of the U.S. and Canada, committed to developing and implementing a remedial action plan (RAP) in 1985 to restore all impaired beneficial uses in each AOC within their political boundaries (IJC, 1985). This commitment to developing and implementing RAPs to restore all impaired beneficial uses in AOCs was then codified in the 1987 Protocol to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (Canada and the U.S. 1987).

The primary beneficial use impairments identified in 1987 were restrictions of fish and wildlife consumption, degradation of fish and wildlife populations, fish tumors or other deformities, degradation of benthos, restrictions on dredging activities, eutrophication or undesirable algae, degradation of phytoplankton or zooplankton populations, and loss of fish and wildlife habitat (Table 1). It should be noted that this was a preliminary assessment of use impairments in 1987 based on available data and information. As more comprehensive data were collected, knowledge gaps filled, and remedial and preventive actions implemented, the status of these use impairments changed over time. However, this preliminary assessment provides useful historical context for the major problems identified at the onset of RAPs.

Each RAP was to identify use impairments and causes, remedial and preventive actions needed to restore use impairments, agencies or organizations responsible for implementing the actions, and the timeframe for implementation to increase accountability. Further, RAPs were to adopt an ecosystem approach that accounts for the interrelationships among air, water, land, and all living things, including humans, and involves all user groups in management (Canada and the U.S. 1987; Hartig and Vallentyne 1989). At that time, the development of RAPs represented a challenging departure from historical pollution control efforts where separate programs like regulation of municipal and industrial discharge, urban runoff, agricultural runoff, and others were implemented without consideration of overlapping responsibilities or consequences (Hartig and Vallentyne, 1989; Hartig and Zarull, 1992). The new RAP process, at that time, called upon a pool of talent far beyond those individuals traditionally associated with water pollution control. It included local communities and all stakeholders in each AOC.

Since the commitment to RAPs in 1985, it is fair to say that there were 43 locally-designed ecosystem approaches to use restoration in AOCs. As of 2016, seven AOCs have been delisted, two have been designated as Areas of Concern in Recovery, and three have implemented all identified remedial actions and monitoring in underway to confirm use restoration. In 2017, on the 32nd anniversary of the commitment to RAPs and the 30th anniversary of inclusion in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, a two-day symposium titled “Restoring Great Lakes Areas of Concern” was convened at the 60th annual meeting of the International Association for Great Lakes Research. Sponsors of this symposium included: Aquatic Ecosystem Health and Management Society (AEHMS), International Association for Great Lakes Research, Great Lakes Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, and the IJC. The purpose of the symposium was to review both what has been achieved and learned in this 32-year effort to restore AOCs. In total, 27 papers and five posters were presented. This special issue includes selected papers from the symposium and a concluding paper on progress, achievements, and lessons learned from 32 years of restoring Great Lakes AOCs. These papers are intended to help sustain efforts to clean up remaining AOCs and help others restore degraded aquatic ecosystems worldwide.

The AEHMS has had a long experience with Great Lakes publications including Areas of Concern via its journal and Ecovision book series. From defining aquatic ecosystem health and “How clean is clean?” to evaluating the effectiveness of programs to elucidating long-term trends, the Society has disseminated science for world-wide readership (AEHM, 2011, 2012, 2016, 2017). AEHMS is pleased to sponsor this unique special issue that shares science, best practices, and proven approaches on the protection, conservation, and sustainable management of Great Lakes AOCs on a global scale.

J.H. Hartig

Balsillie School of International Affairs

M.A. Zarull

Environment Canada, retired

M. Munawar

Aquatic Ecosystem Health & Management Society

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