The Great Lakes: The First Freshwater Hope Spot
Shedd Aquarium has championed the Great Lakes as a Mission Blue Hope Spot — a special place identified as critical to the health of oceans and aquatic life. The Great Lakes join 151 other Hope Spots recognized across the globe and is the first and only freshwater Hope Spot.
What is a Hope Spot?
Hope Spots are special places across the globe that are recognized as scientifically critical to our ocean's health and designated for protection under a global conservation campaign by Mission Blue, a non-profit organization founded by Dr. Sylvia Earle.
These Hope Spot designations are meant to help recognize, empower and support individuals and global communities in their efforts to protect our ocean.
The Hope Spot campaign is also intended to gain the attention of leaders and policymakers and ultimately protect 30% of the ocean by 2030. This internationally recognized tool has been used to protect marine habitats around the globe. Policymakers, scientists and activists have often used the Hope Spot designation as a springboard to establish formal, legal protections.
The designation of the Great Lakes as the first representative freshwater body emphasizes the importance of the connectedness of our global water sources – fresh or salt, inland or ocean.
“The Great Lakes represent both the figurative and the literal heart of the North American water system. The Great Lakes are 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. Sylvia Earle, founder of Mission Blue
What Makes the Lakes Great?
The Great Lakes are a unique treasure of our planet Earth. Sitting on the border of the United States and Canada, they are a central body of the North American inland water system and make up 21% of the Earth’s total surface freshwater. These five magnificent inland lakes, collectively known as the Great Lakes, are comprised of Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and their connecting channels, including the St. Lawrence River. The water cycle, animal migrations, as well as the culture and economics of the region, result in a connection across a much wider geographic space. As such, the Great Lakes are a prime example of how water connects us all.
Approximately 34 million people in the U.S. and Canada live in the region, with 40 million people using the lakes as a source of drinking water. With cities like Chicago, Milwaukee, Duluth, Green Bay, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo and Toronto all sitting directly on the Great Lakes, the area fuels a $6 trillion economy — the world's third largest if the region were considered its own country.
The large waterways of the Great Lakes have also been integral in the lives and histories of the Indigenous communities and remain so today.
Despite covering only about 0.8 percent of the Earth’s surface, freshwater habitats support a disproportionately large amount of biodiversity, including more than 10 percent of all known animals and about 50 percent of all fish species on the planet. Biodiversity refers to the variety and variability of all life forms in an area and is meaningful to environmental health because all species are connected in ways sometimes not obvious to an observer and are working together to sustain the health of the ecosystems they live in.
More broadly, research indicates that freshwater ecosystems provide critical services for our planet — supporting food production, human health, water purification, global temperature regulation and more.
These same vital freshwater systems are some of the most jeopardized ecosystems on the planet. The threats to the Great Lakes are consistent with most aquatic systems: habitat loss, water pollution, invasion of non-native species, overexploitation, climate change and pesticides are all causing harmful changes.
“The Great Lakes serve as a vital economic driver, natural resource and place of respite for millions of people across two countries. By size alone, we know that conserving such a great and important natural wonder cannot be done alone. We applaud Mission Blue for amplifying the unique role that freshwater habitats like the Great Lakes play in the health of our shared blue planet.”Bridget Coughlin, PhD, president and CEO of Shedd Aquarium.
Who Protects the Great Lakes?
The protection and restoration of the Great Lakes happens through local, regional, national and international partnerships. Nonprofits, government agencies, corporations and elected officials all play a role in the health and well-being of the Great Lakes basin.
Several partner organizations helped support Shedd Aquarium’s bid 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 Board of Commissioners, Cook County Department of Environment and Sustainability, Detroit Zoological Society, Discovery World Science + Technology Center, Friends of the Chicago River, The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, Great Lakes Fishery Commission, Healing Our Waters: Great Lakes Coalition, National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, National Wildlife Federation - Great Lakes Regional Center, Openlands, Rep. Danny Davis - U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Robyn Gabel - Illinois State House of Representatives, Sen. Robert Peters - Illinois State Senate, SC Johnson, Timothy Hoellein - Loyola University Department of Biology, Toronto Zoo and the UIC Freshwater Lab.
These contributors and others are ongoing collaborators in efforts to protect, restore and build a healthy and resilient Great Lakes basin and blue planet for generations to come.
“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.”Shannon Colbert, vice president of external affairs at National Marine Sanctuary Foundation
Shedd's Commitment to Freshwater
Shedd’s transformational Centennial Commitment aims to accelerate access and connection to nature for all and amplifies ways to care for, conserve and act to ensure an equitable, sustainable and thriving future for people and aquatic life. As part of this vision, we want to raise awareness about the critical importance of freshwater ecosystems and the services they provide to regional and global audiences, as well as ensure that freshwater conservation issues are included in policy discussions.
Designating the Great Lakes as a Hope Spot helps Shedd amplify this message to advocate for protecting our waterways and reversing the rapid worldwide decline in freshwater biodiversity — especially the one in our backyard.
Using public engagement strategies, groundbreaking conservation research and policy advocacy, Shedd will bring together partners and advocates to demonstrate how caring for the Great Lakes water systems is vital to human prosperity, security, health, and, ultimately, to our existence.
“Aquariums are serving an increasingly important role in addressing the dual threats of climate change and biodiversity loss by sparking compassion, curiosity, and conservation for the aquatic world. Their ability to reach large audiences in meaningful targeted ways helps educate and empower the public to take action on behalf of their communities.”Dr. Sylvia Earle, founder of Mission Blue
What Can You Do to Help?
Sign up to get regular email updates from Shedd Aquarium — including timely and tangible ways to act and advocate for wildlife.
Reach out to your elected officials and voice your support for legislation that helps keep the Great Lakes healthy.
Or, join us for a cleanup event, hop in a kayak to monitor native habitats, or learn how to reduce your reliance on single-use plastics by participating in one of the programs below:
Shedd Aquarium Action Days
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Kayak for Conservation
Learn, experience and take action for nature while paddling the Chicago River!
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