Great Lakes Literacy, Principle Eight – socially, economically, and environmentally significant

Great Lakes Literacy is an understanding of the Great Lakes’ influence on you and your influence on the Great Lakes. Principle Eight focuses on human connections with the Great Lakes.

This article is the eighth in a series of articles discussing what Great Lakes literacy means for residents of the state of Michigan and the Great Lakes region.

Principle Seven

The Great Lakes are a source of inspiration, recreation, rejuvenation and discovery. They are also an important element in the heritage of many cultures.

The waters of the Great Lakes have been extremely significant to historical settlement and development. The lakes’ names and the names of many cities, counties and landmarks along their shores have Native American or immigrant origins. These freshwater seas will continue to play an important role in the future habitation of the Great Lakes region.Figure 1: Great Lakes jobs by state bar graph.

The Great Lakes’ moderating effects on climate influence the human culture, activities, agriculture and health of adjacent coastal areas. Here in Michigan, our “fruit belt” along the Lake Michigan coast provides an excellent example of this. Educators can use a set of new Teaching with Great Lakes Data lessons, developed by Michigan State University Extension and Michigan Sea Grant, to illustrate these moderating effects.

The Great Lakes economy is diverse, with major sectors in industry, recreation and tourism, agriculture, commercial and sport fisheries, forestry, and mining. A recent Michigan Sea Grant study indicates that more than 1.5 million U.S. jobs are directly connected to the Great Lakes, generating $62 billion in wages, annually, with more than 525,000 Great Lakes-related jobs in Michigan alone (Figure 1).

Great Lakes beaches, resort communities and natural areas support a vibrant recreation and tourism industry and enhance the quality of life for residents. More than 4 million recreational vessels are registered in the region, and people spend nearly $16 billion, annually, on boating trips and equipment. Many take advantage of the region's Great Lakes-dependent natural resources, each year, including more than 9.2 million anglers, 4.6 million hunters and 23.2 million bird watchers.

Figure 2: Great Lakes jobs by industry pie chart.Great Lakes vessels transport an average of 163 million tons of cargo each year. Shipping is an economically efficient method of transporting raw materials, finished goods and agricultural products. According to the Lake Carriers Association, waterborne commerce on the Great Lakes generates nearly 227,000 jobs in the eight Great Lakes states and Ontario and Quebec (Figure 2). U.S.-flag lakers carried 93.8 million tons of dry-bulk cargo in 2011, including iron ore, limestone, coal, cement, salt, sand and grain. 

Despite their vastness, the Great Lakes have been dramatically challenged by human endeavors. Great Lakes stewardship can be increased through education, such as that provided by Michigan Sea Grant Extension’s Great Lakes Education Program and Summer Discovery Cruises. Basic ecosystem processes have been restored through individual and collective efforts. Proper foresight and informed decision making will continue to make the Great Lakes a model of environmental protection, restoration and innovation.

This article was adapted from Great Lakes Literacy: Essential Principles and Fundamental Concepts for Great Lakes Learning (Ohio Sea Grant, 2010).

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