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Great Lakes Article:

Opinion: Lake bottoms need protection, too
By Joyce Braithwaite-Brickley
The White Lake Beacon
Published November 22nd, 2004

While most of us -- except for anglers -- focus on the surface of the Great Lakes for recreation, scenery, and transportation, a lot has happened beneath.

Some of the most fascinating natural and human Great Lakes history, in fact, lies submerged anywhere from dozens to hundreds of feet down.
Shipwrecks, of course, come to mind.

Twenty-nine years after the loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior, evidence of past maritime tragedies has become an important part of the Great Lakes tourism industry. Approximately 1,500 shipwrecks took place within Michigan waters and an estimated 10,000 have been scattered at various times on the bottom of the Great Lakes and Lake St. Clair. Although a great many of these have been salvaged, thousands remain, providing targets for divers.

Michigan has 11 underwater preserves, designated under a 1982 state law. The statute empowers the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the State Department of History, Arts and Libraries (HAL) to manage the preserves and requires a permit for the removal of any artifacts from shipwrecks. When a Cheboygan man pled guilty to taking a beam without a state permit from the William H. Barnum in the Straits Underwater Preserve earlier this year, he was ordered to pay $4,650 in fines and costs. It was an expensive price for what he intended to make into a fireplace mantel.

Unfortunately, as one state official says, "the Legislature in its infinite wisdom" has never appropriated a dime for implementation of the underwater preserve program.

The state has dedicated some federal money under the Coastal Zone Management Act for the preserves. Scraping together staff from other programs, the two agencies have designated the 11 preserves but can't regularly police them or enforce the statute. Cathie Cunningham Ballard, who administers DEQ's coastal management program, says a small amount of federal funds have been used to set up an "underwater trail" at the Alger Underwater Preserve near Munising. Signs will lead scuba divers from one wreck to another in one of the first such trails of its kind in the Great Lakes.

The cool water conditions of the upper Great Lakes can preserve some underwater cargo longer than you'd expect. When diver Frank Hoffman salvaged the 218-ton Alvin Clark from a depth of 110 feet in Green Bay in 1969 after 105 years underwater, a crock of unspoiled cheese was retrieved. Unfortunately, once the wooden ship returned to the surface, decay attacked it. Without funds to protect the Clark, it rotted at Menominee, Michigan, within 25 years.

But shipwrecks aren't the only underwater marvels of the Great Lakes. Researchers associated with Oakland University investigated a "drowned forest" in Lake Huron almost 3 miles east of Lexington between 1998 and 2001. Dating back between 7,400 and 7,900 years, the logs, branches, roots and stumps are evidence that the lake was much lower millennia ago.

They're also prime habitat for an aquatic invasive species, the round goby. As researcher R. Douglas Hunter noted, "These aggressive little fish are unafraid of divers and aggregate in surprising numbers whenever a diver is digging, sawing or engaged in any activity that creates vibrations (or) sound and disturbs the sediment. The extraordinary success of the round goby in the moderately shallow waters of southern Lake Huron can hardly be overstated.

Also supported by federal funds passed through the state's coastal program, divers have been exploring an underwater archaeological site near Norwood, at the north end of the east arm of Grand Traverse Bay. About 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, when Great Lakes water levels were as much as 130 feet below current levels, ancient peoples mined chert for use in making stone tools at the site. Researchers hope to find evidence of settlements as well as spear points, fire rings or stone net weights.

Interestingly, the Michigan law establishing preserves permits them to be created for "geological or environmental" purposes as well as for the preservation of shipwrecks and other historical artifacts. Someday, perhaps, when legislative bodies fund environmental protection again and science has advanced, Michigan will have preserves that protect prime fish spawning grounds, as well as evidence of the first peoples who inhabited the Great Lakes region.


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