Opinion: Lake bottoms need protection,
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
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
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
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.