Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes and one of the largest freshwater ecosystems in the world, has remained relatively pristine compared to the other four. It is far enough away from the populous urban centers of southern Ontario, its watersheds are largely forested, there is little industry or agriculture on its shorelines, and its especially cold water (averaging 4 C year-round) has kept to invasive species.
However, even with federal protection on its north shore, Lake Superior is still at risk from climate change and offshore industrial impacts.
The fact that it is so pristine also means that Lake Superior is the most rapidly changing of the Great Lakes. As the planet warms, so does its water, and a warmer lake threatens its ecosystem and could harbor invasive species. It is further threatened by urban areas and offshore industries, which leach pollutants and an overabundance of nutrients into the water, which can cause large algal blooms.
“When you have something [so] pristine, it’s very easy to see a change compared to something that’s degraded,” said Rob Stewart, a Lakehead University professor who researches Lake Superior.
The federal government officially designated Lake Superior as a National Marine Conservation Area (NMCA) in 2015, protecting 10,000 square kilometers of the more than 82,000 square kilometer lake along its northern shoreline. For a freshwater ecosystem, the move is “unprecedented,” said Mike McKay, director of the Great Lakes Environmental Research Institute at the University of Windsor.
He thinks Lake Superior was chosen to become an NMCA because of how untouched it is. “Choosing a more or less pristine area was a good idea because now we’re going to make sure that part of Lake Superior remains with very high water quality and good habitat,” he said.
There have been some benefits to becoming an NMCA. Stewart says the designation has raised the lake’s profile to a national level “in line with marine and coastal environments.”
It has also allowed more people to access the lake by non-motorized watercraft, such as kayaks, as Parks Canada has since shown people where to get to Lake Superior, which was previously not well known.
By putting the lake on more people’s radar, the NMCA designation might also have given some research projects a boost, Stewart says. For example, before Parks Canada promoted the lake as a tourist destination, it researched which islands were most suitable for visitors. A cleanup of plastic spilled from a train that derailed in 2008 was also organized after the NMCA was established, though Stewart notes that he did not lead any action to ensure a similar incident did not happen again.
“Perhaps an individual could have embarked on [these] before the NMCA. But the NMCA certainly brought attention and priority to those kinds of research projects,” Stewart said.
Experts say that while creating a national marine conservation area raises awareness of the pristine nature of the lake, it does not prevent the worst impacts of climate change. #GreatLakes #LakeSuperior
But the designation also has limitations. While Stewart says there is more research related to monitoring and tourism, “[the NMCA] it has no teeth… to make significant changes.”
It will not solve or mitigate the threats of climate change or pollution on the high seas. While NMCAs are protected from dumping, underwater mining, and oil and gas exploration and development, these things weren’t in high demand in Lake Superior in the first place, McKay said.
“I think when people think of a conservation area, they think we’re doing something else to conserve space,” Stewart said. “And really, the rules that govern the NMCA are the same as the rules that govern all Canadian parts of the Great Lakes.”
The Great Lakes are protected by the 1972 Great Lakes Water Quality agreement between Canada and the US. This agreement is mandated to protect and restore those ecosystems, and so, not the NMCA, is how it is most likely reduce the risks to Lake Superior. Stewart says.
One thing the NMCA could do, Stewart says, is create a research station on the north shore of Lake Superior and study emerging or under-researched issues not addressed through the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, universities or other sources. research entities.
“In the interest of understanding how this pristine natural NMCA will be protected in the future,” Stewart said. “How are you going to anticipate changes and advocate to address those changes or be transparent that we have problems in the lake.”