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Facts and Figures about the Great Lakes
The Great Lakes are, from west to east:
The Great Lakes are one of the world’s largest surface freshwater ecosystems.
- 84% of North America’s surface fresh water
- about 21% of the world’s supply of surface fresh water
- Physical Features of the Great Lakes
- The Great Lakes Atlas Third Edition 1995 is available from NSCEP, US EPA’s publication service
- Data and Map Floor Studies of the Great Lakes from NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory
The Great Lakes Basin
The Great Lakes basin encompasses large parts of two nations, the United States and Canada.
- Nearly 25% of Canadian agricultural production and 7% of American farm production
The Great Lakes basin is defined by science, engineering and politics.
Most of the basin is defined by hydrology;
watersheds that drain into the Great Lakes and their connecting channels are in the Great Lakes basin.
A combination of engineering and politics (Canadian) have resulted in the Rideau exception being included in the Great Lakes basin (the orange striped polygon on the Canadian side of the St. Lawrence River).
The boundaries on these two maps are defined by 8-digit Hydrologic Unit Codes (HUC8). These may change slightly as more detailed mapping is completed for these watersheds.
The degradation of the Great Lakes can be traced back to the westward expansion of the North American population.
The fishery decline in late 1800s was one of the region’s earliest environmental problems.
Agricultural and forestry practices resulted in siltation, increased water temperature, and loss of habitat for native fish species.
The discharge of pollutants into the lakes accompanied the region’s population growth.
The vastness of the Great Lakes encouraged the mistaken belief that their great volumes of water could indefinitely dilute pollutants to harmless levels.
Yet impacts to the environment and human health were inevitable.
The direct discharge of domestic wastes from cities along the lakeshores led to typhoid and cholera epidemics in the early 1900s.
the United States and Canada
In 1909, the United States and Canada cooperatively negotiated the Boundary Waters Treaty.
This treaty established the International Joint Commission (IJC) which is a permanent binational body addressing,
among other important boundary issues, water quality concerns and the regulation of water levels and flows between the two countries.
The Great Lakes Water Quality Board and the Great Lakes Science Advisory Board are bodies of the IJC.
Six commissioners are the final arbitrators of the IJC: the United States and Canada appoint three each.
Great Lakes Fisheries
The Great Lakes support diverse fresh-water fisheries. Fis Sturgeon, lake trout, and whitefish were popular catches of their time. Birchbark canoes and nets made from willow bark were commonly used to harvest fish.
Commercial fishing began around 1820, and annual catches grew approximately 20 percent per year as improved fishing technologies were applied.
Commercial fishing harvests from the Great Lakes peaked between 1889 and 1899 at around 67,000 metric tons (147 million pounds).
By the late 1950s, the golden days of the Great Lakes commercial fishery were over.
Recreation in the Great Lakes area became important beginning in the nineteenth century.
A thriving pleasure-boat industry based on newly constructed canals on the lakes brought vacationers into the region,
as did the already established railroads and highways.
The lower lakes wilderness region attracted people who were seeking health benefits and even miracle cures from mineral waters.