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Centers of Commerce, Culture and Conservation

Scott Sowa Talks Climate Change at Cranbrook

Dr. Scott Sowa, director of science for The Nature Conservancy in Michigan, recently spoke as part of the six-part lecture series "What's So Great About the Great Lakes?" at the Cranbrook Institute of Science. He discussed why he believes the Great Lakes bays have influenced our past and hold the key to our future.

You can watch his full lecture here or catch the top takeaways below.

The Nature Conservancy:

Your presentation was about freshwater bays in the Great Lakes, and their important role in our past and future. What exactly is a bay?

Dr. Scott Sowa:

A bay is simply a body of water that forms an indentation of the shoreline that is smaller than a gulf, but larger than a cove. Contrary to this simple definition, freshwater bays are very complex habitats play an important role both ecologically and economically throughout the Great Lakes. Bays are highly interconnected with land because they are usually fed by a major river. Some examples of Great Lakes bays that you may know are Saginaw Bay, Grand Traverse Bay, Green Bay, or Maumee Bay in Western Lake Erie.

The Nature Conservancy:

What unique ecological contributions come from the freshwater bays of the Great Lakes?

Dr. Scott Sowa:

I like to describe the ecological role of freshwater bays using five categories: stability, habitat, energy, productivity, and diversity. The water itself is more stable within bays. In bay areas, we see less wind and wave disturbance and also less currents than in the open lakes, which creates a more stable habitat overall. This stability leads to more predictable habitat for a variety of plants and animals both in the nearshore and coastal wetland habitats of bays. Because the bays are relatively shallow, the waters are well-mixed which allows for the large amounts of nutrients and energy to be available for use by a variety of plant and animals, which makes bays to most productive and ecologically diverse habitats in the Great Lakes. Overall, Great Lakes bays provide not only very unique habitats for wildlife, but also plentiful resources for us.

The Nature Conservancy:

How have we been able to use the resources from the Great Lakes bays?

Dr. Scott Sowa:

The Great Lakes have really shaped the culture of the region. Since people first colonized the area, they have been benefiting from the abundant natural resources found in bays. Berries, fish, and waterfowl emerged as important food sources. Fur and timber trade boomed because the lakes, bays, and rivers made transportation easy. This ultimately led to the formation of towns and cities. As the population grew, they needed to be fed, and the wetlands bordering the lakes made for some of the most fertile soil in the nation. While trade, industry, and agriculture have led to a thriving socio-economic setting, this mix has also led to some complex conservation issues.

The Nature Conservancy:

What has changed in the Great Lakes region?

Dr. Scott Sowa:

Industry and development have created barriers to animal migration and added contaminants to the environment, trade has brought invasive species, and lands that were converted for agriculture are no longer available as habitat for many animal species. Ultimately, the ecosystem processes of the bays have been altered.

The Nature Conservancy:

What is The Nature Conservancy doing to improve the health of the Great Lakes bays?

Dr. Scott Sowa:

The Nature Conservancy has developed the Great Lakes Project to address a variety of challenges we see in the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem. The Project has three main goals: to build a network of conservation lands and waters, restore their health, and create and share knowledge about these special Great Lakes ecosystems. It is important to remember that, in order to continue benefiting from the Great Lakes resources, we need to maintain the health of these natural areas.

The Nature Conservancy:

Are you implementing The Great Lakes Project in any particular bays?

Dr. Scott Sowa:

The Nature Conservancy is working across four states in three different bays. In Green Bay we are improving stream connectivity, in Saginaw Bay we are setting ecological goals and strategically implementing conservation practices on agricultural lands to improve the health of fish communities, and in Western Lake Erie we are improving the health of coastal wetlands through a variety of local and larger scale restoration actions. These freshwater bays are truly places where all the elements of the Great Lakes Project come together and are needed for successful conservation.

The Nature Conservancy:

Where can we go to see these beautiful bays first-hand?

Dr. Scott Sowa:

Everyone should take time to visit and experience the splendor of one or more of the Great Lakes bays. Potawatomi State Park is a wonderful place to get a birds-eye view of both Green Bay and Sturgeon Bay Wildfowl Bay State Wildlife Area is a spectacular place to experience Saginaw Bay, and Magee Marsh is a great spot for birding and seeing Western Lake Erie. Another great way to see our natural places is to join us on a field trip!


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