NOAA and Partners: Decades of Research Find ‘Unprecedented’ Change in Lake Michigan

September 27, 2010

Muskegon Lake Field Station of NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab.

Muskegon Lake Field Station of NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

The complex network of predators and prey that inhabit Lake Michigan has changed so drastically in recent decades that future trends for the food web are murky, according to scientists at the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab (GLERL), the NOAA Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research (CILER), and other academic partners. These trends are documented in a special issue of the Journal of Great Lakes Research.

The changes in this network, a system that biologists call the food web, pose an uncertain future for both water quality and fisheries management. Several of their studies show that these trends are driven by non-native mussels that invaded Lake Michigan beginning in the late 1980s. The studies are online now and coming out in print this month.

Researcher Henry Vanderploeg, of NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab, analyzes invasive non-native mussels.

Researcher Henry Vanderploeg, of NOAA's
Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab, analyzes invasive non-native.
mussels.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA).

“We do not know what the future holds,” said Gary Fahnenstiel, Ph.D., of GLERL, located in Ann Arbor. “We need to continue monitoring mussel populations, particularly in the cold, offshore regions of the lake, in order to develop realistic and sustainable management goals.”

Among the research findings:

Tom Nalepa of NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab studies invasive mussels in the Great Lakes.

Tom Nalepa of NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab studies invasive mussels in the Great Lakes.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA).

The future of the Lake Michigan ecosystem will ultimately depend on the eventual stabilization of the invasive quagga mussel population. These mussels are rapidly expanding into deeper colder waters, but are expected to decline and reach a stable level in the future.

“The Lake Michigan analyses, carefully documented in this special issue, should make people sit up and take notice, once the ecosystem impacts of the invasive mussels are seen together in this comprehensive sense,” said Marie Colton, Ph.D., director of GLERL.

With much unknown about how quickly and how far the mussels will expand their range, the scientists say they need to continue long-term monitoring and research efforts, coupled with active involvement of resource managers to develop appropriate management actions.

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