How are the Great Lakes doing?

This question arises often, both inside and outside the region. We have fortunately a group of environmental indicators that can go a long way to answering that question. These indicators are the result of decades’ work by researchers, managers and others to develop metrics tracking the status and trends of various conditions in the lakes, ranging from aquatic invasive species to nutrients and algae to toxic chemicals in fish.

Although these basin-wide indicators help assess progress towards meeting objectives such as those in the U.S. – Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA), these indicator programs were developed by subject matter experts with limited input from broader stakeholders. Now there is increasing interest in the region in engaging the broader community in various aspects of Great Lakes governance, including nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), Indigenous, and other underrepresented communities.

To that end, NWF worked with academic, agency, and private sector colleagues to obtain stakeholder input on Great Lakes indicators, focusing on strengths and limitations of current indicators, and outlining a process to address shortcomings in current indicators.

High-level findings out of a virtual summit of stakeholders from various sectors included the importance of having multiple criteria (including data availability and resolution across multiple scales); setting of objectives and intended uses of indicators based on both expert and broader stakeholder involvement; and early and sustained engagement of stakeholders.

High-level findings from a virtual meeting of Healing Our Waters Great Lakes Coalition leadership included the importance of considering additional indicators (including socioeconomic, economic, and human health); more indicators tying management actions to outcomes (including local); and more diverse representation (including local community leadership) in indicator development efforts.

We developed a white paper drawing on this input and on a review of the literature on Great Lakes indicators. In addition to reviewing the historical development of Great Lakes indicators and describing approaches to current indicator efforts, the white paper summarizes findings from the two stakeholder meetings, and gives recommendations for better engaging stakeholders in indicator development and implementation, including through use of a communications framework. Recommendations include:

  • The GLWQA Parties should use the proposed (or an analogous) communications framework in developing a formal structure for both education and outreach as well as obtaining input from a broader range of stakeholders in indicator development and implementation, including Indigenous and other underrepresented communities;
  • A Great Lakes Center of Excellence, or a community of practice, should be supported to serve as a clearinghouse and resource for indicator development, implementation, and communication efforts;
  • Researchers should increase participation in activities related to indicator development and implementation, building on existing engagement in indicator implementation;
  • Indicator developers and program managers should increase attention to the linkages between management actions and ecological, socioeconomic, and human health outcomes, including through increased use of conceptual frameworks.

Further details on recommendations are included in the white paper. The proposed framework would advance Great Lakes indicator development through a process that is science-based, tied to policy objectives and effectiveness, covers a range of relevant ecological and socioeconomic and human health issues, and is relevant to a broad range of stakeholders – including underrepresented communities.

Read the Report

This project was sponsored by the University of Michigan Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research.

The project was led by Michael Murray, Ph.D., who is finishing his position as Staff Scientist for the National Wildlife Federation Great Lakes Regional Center.  Steering Committee members and co-authors are John Bratton, Ph.D. (LimnoTech), Ashley Elgin, Ph.D. (NOAA/Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory), Casey Godwin, Ph.D. (University of Michigan Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research), and Catherine Riseng, Ph.D. (University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, and Michigan Sea Grant).