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The Great Lakes Named Mission Blue’s First Freshwater Hope Spot

May 17, 2023

  • A logo reading "Mission Blue Hope Spot: The Great Lakes, North America".

LAKE MICHIGAN, CHICAGO, UNITED STATES – International marine conservation nonprofit Mission Blue has named the Great Lakes the first and only freshwater Hope Spot – special places across the globe, championed by local organizations and conservationists, that are scientifically recognized as critical to the health of the ocean. The Great Lakes joins a suite of 151 Hope Spots recognized and established by Mission Blue over the last 12 years, all of which represent marine environments. Championing the nomination and application effort was Chicago’s John G. Shedd Aquarium with support from more than 24 Great Lakes organizations across the region.

Pioneer oceanographer and explorer Dr. Sylvia Earle, who founded Mission Blue and currently serves as its President and Chairman, posed a challenge to Shedd Aquarium in April 2022 to consider the Great Lakes for designation, in part, due to the unique connectivity they share with marine environments (The St. Lawrence River flows from Lake Ontario and pours out to the Atlantic Ocean) and human health.

“The Great Lakes represent both the figurative and the literal heart of the North American water system,” Dr. Earle stated. “A source of water for over 40 million people and more than 3,500 plant and animal species, many of which are unique to the Great Lakes, the inclusion of this critically important natural area as a Hope Spot will highlight the connection and significance of protecting inland habitats, as we really understand that the whole aquatic world; inland waters and the ocean beyond are one interconnected system.”

Dr. Earle added that recognition as a Hope Spot means the Great Lakes will benefit from additional scientific advisory, communication and community engagement support from Mission Blue. Organizations that contribute to conservation in the Great Lakes will also have access to Mission Blue’s growing list of partners, expanding the opportunity for future scientific and policy-focused collaborations.

“The Great Lakes serve as a vital economic driver, natural resource and place of respite for millions of people across two countries.” said Bridget Coughlin, PhD, president and CEO of Shedd Aquarium. “By size alone, we know that conserving such a great and important source of sustainability and sustenance cannot be done alone. Hope Spot designations not only bring awareness and focus to areas in need of environmental protection and recovery, but also critical collaboration that can help influence policy change, motivate economic shifts and generate a global wave of community support for aquatic conservation.”

Several local, regional, national and international partners supported the bid from Shedd Aquarium to make the Great Lakes a Hope Spot. These partners include: Alliance for the Great Lakes, Aquarium of Niagara, Audubon Great Lakes, Buffalo Zoo, Chicago Park District, Cleveland MetroParks Zoo, Cook County Commissioner Kevin B. Morrison, Daniel P. Haerther Scholars, The Detroit Zoological Society, Discovery World, Friends of the Chicago River, Great Lakes Fishery Commission, Healing Our Waters: Great Lakes Coalition, Majority Leader Robyn Gabel - Illinois State House of Representatives, National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, National Wildlife Federation - Great Lakes Regional Center, Openlands, Sen. Robert Peters - Illinois State Senate, SC Johnson, Timothy Hoellein - Loyola University Department of Biology, Toronto Zoo and the UIC Freshwater Lab.

The Great Lakes span more than 750 miles (1,207 kilometers) and are straddled across the United States’ north-central border and Canada’s south-central border. The five bodies of water that make up the Great Lakes are Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and their connecting channels, including the St. Lawrence River. The massive lakes hold approximately 90% of the freshwater in the United States and 21% of the world’s surface freshwater supply. Unfortunately freshwater habitats are experiencing declines in biodiversity far greater than those in the most affected terrestrial ecosystems (Dudgeon et al. 2006).

The conservation and accessibility of freshwater is an ever-growing issue. Threats to the Great Lakes are consistent with those historically faced by most aquatic ecosystems worldwide: habitat loss and degradation, pollution, invasive species, overexploitation and flow modification (Dudgeon et al. 2006). Modern threats have emerged, including pesticides that cause harmful algal blooms, microplastics and a rapidly changing global climate (Ried et al. 2018). Additionally, urbanization and a lack of connectedness to nature can exacerbate the threats to these natural resources, as many people do not regard the Great Lakes as a habitat for diverse aquatic life (Murchie et al. 2018).

Shannon Colbert, vice president of external affairs at National Marine Sanctuary Foundation expresses the importance of developing formal protection for freshwater entities. “There are ‘representation gaps’ as currently MPAs are not representative of all types of habitats or ecosystems found in U.S. waters and there are ‘ecological gaps’ where key species, habitats, or ecosystems are missing. Freshwater biodiversity protection is also some of the most underrepresented globally. [The recognition of] the entirety of the Great Lakes as a Hope Spot can help to bridge these gaps.”

Despite environmental challenges, the Great Lakes are also a fantastic example of what can be accomplished through both local and binational collaboration, but the work must continue to ensure an equitable, sustainable and thriving future for both people and aquatic life. 

The Great Lakes are home to a variety of endemic species such as fish, mollusks, invertebrates, birds, and mammals as well as oceanic species that either permanently or temporarily reside in the lakes, primarily birds and certain species of fish, including the coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) and king salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha). Due to habitat loss and degradation, nearly half of the more than 30 amphibian species native to the Great Lakes basin fall into a category of conservation concern ranging from special concern, threatened, endangered, and extirpated. Endemic species include lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush) and lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens), as well as critically endangered and possibly extinct species such as certain varieties of cisco.

“The Great Lakes region is an incredible natural resource. Protecting and ensuring a healthy and vibrant Great Lakes is critical to the health of our planet for both this and future generations,” said Fisk Johnson, Chairman and CEO of SC Johnson.

Mission Blue, Shedd Aquarium and Great Lakes partner organizations encourage the public to learn more here and sign up to stay connected to Hope Spot efforts and receive ways to participate and act as champions of hope for the Great Lakes.

About Mission Blue

Mission Blue inspires action to explore and protect the ocean. Led by legendary oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle, Mission Blue is uniting a global coalition to inspire an upwelling of public awareness, access and support for a worldwide network of marine protected areas – Hope Spots. Under Dr. Earle’s leadership, the Mission Blue team implements communications campaigns that elevate Hope Spots to the world stage through documentaries, social media, traditional media and innovative tools like Esri ArcGIS. Currently, the Mission Blue alliance includes more than 250 respected ocean conservation groups and like-minded organizations, from large multinational companies to individual scientific teams doing important research. Additionally, Mission Blue supports the work of conservation NGOs that share the mission of building public support for ocean protection. With the concerted effort and passion of people and organizations around the world, Hope Spots can become a reality and form a global network of marine protected areas large enough to restore the ocean, the blue heart of the planet.

About Shedd Aquarium

The John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago sparks compassion, curiosity and conservation for the aquatic animal world. Home to 32,000 aquatic animals representing 1,500 species of fishes, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, birds and mammals from waters around the globe, Shedd is a recognized leader in animal care, conservation education and research. An accredited member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), the organization is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and supported by the people of Chicago, the State of Illinois and the Chicago Park