This spring, the Wisconsin Academy brought together our Waters of Wisconsin Initiative leaders for a day of intense discussion about the state of Wisconsin’s freshwater ecosystems. Part of our discussion was devoted to the health of the Great Lakes.
During a break, I overheard a colleague say, “When we’re gone, we’ll be the last generation that remembers the wild fishery in the Great Lakes.”
I’m guessing those of us in earshot were mostly Baby Boomers, and I realized—at least for us—he was right.
During early settlement, new immigrants to this region were astonished by the bounty of the Great Lakes fishery. They harvested lake trout, whitefish, lake herring, perch, chubs, and more. But “peak fish” happened in the last decade of the 19th century, and the bounty has declined since. Growing up in Michigan, I remember lake trout and whitefish on the dinner table, but by the time I was eight years old, the commercial harvest of lake trout was halted because the population had crashed.
Over the years, the lake trout all but disappeared from the Great Lakes due to many factors: over-fishing, aggressive predation from lamprey, the impacts of chemicals like PCBs and dioxin on reproductive capacity, habitat changes and losses, and the parallel loss of the trout’s natural food sources.
Scientists use various indicators to gauge the health of an ecosystem—much like vital signs are used to gauge human health. Lake trout are a key indicator for the biological health of the upper Great Lakes. They are top predators and what ecologists sometimes refer to as keystone species in an ecosystem. Like an architectural keystone, when a keystone species of an ecosystem is removed the structure falls apart. We have spent millions of dollars trying to restore the lake trout since their precipitous decline. And while in some parts of the Great Lakes they are again successfully reproducing, when the habitat and food web for which a species is evolved essentially disappears, restoration is an enormous challenge.
The near loss of a keystone species like lake trout is evidence of how much humans have fundamentally altered the world’s largest freshwater lake ecosystem. Today, the Great Lakes host an odd amalgamation of Pacific salmon, Atlantic alewives, and 179 other non-native species, along with what’s left of the native fishery.
Against these odds, I still have hope that we can restore the lake trout, because without them the lakes aren’t just different, they are forever diminished.
Of course, younger generations may not remember the lake trout. Or even care that they are almost gone. Time creates new norms. I once heard the writer Sara Stein say in a lecture on ecological restoration, “We will not grieve that which we have not known.” But, it’s important for those of us who have known to convey what is at stake, what we risk losing.
Recent conversations in Wisconsin about the value we place on education, our public lands, the arts, the role the sciences play in public-decision making, and so much more have me thinking about how our state is like an ecosystem: both are woven from interdependent relationships forged by individuals with unique and important roles to play. Too, in both our systems individual well-being is tied to the health and resilience of the whole.
A social community also has key indicators by which we can gauge its health and vitality. For instance, a strong educational system is one of our state’s keystones. Healthy lands and waters are others.
Over the years, we’ve made deep investments in education and access to knowledge, including the creation of world-class universities and excellent public school systems. We also chose to restore our forests after the 19th century logging boom, pioneer a new way of farming after the 1930s Dust Bowl, and find better ways to protect the lakes, streams, and waterways that we all use for recreation, commerce, and just about everything else. It’s easy to forget that not every state made similar choices. But, oh, what we have gained from doing so.
Yet many of us—including me—took these keystones for granted, thinking they would always be here to strengthen and support this marvelous edifice we call Wisconsin.
Today, there are cracks in these keystones.
If we are to repair them, we must remember that good choices reflect not only a vision for the future, but also commitments of time, sweat, and money. Strong educational systems and healthy lands and waters don’t happen on their own—nor do they happen for free.
So, let’s roll up our sleeves and secure our keystones. Let’s remind ourselves and others of the investments we’ve made, of just what is at stake. Otherwise, tomorrow we’ll wake up in a Wisconsin that is not just different but diminished.
Over the next year, we’re focusing many Academy programs and publications on securing keystones for Wisconsin’s future. We hope you will join us to affirm, celebrate, and perpetuate the ideals that inspired the Academy’s founders, the ideals found in the Wisconsin Idea, the social and cultural advances of the Progressive Era, and Aldo Leopold’s vision for an ethical relationship with the land.
All of these mean Wisconsin to me. How about you?