Book Chat: Dan Egan on the Death and Life of the Great Lakes

Kathleen O'Neil

Dan Egan won a AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award in 2013 for a three-part series published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about invasive species in the Great Lakes. That work became part of his book, "The Death and Life of the Great Lakes," which is newly published in paperback and was chosen for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club's April 2018 selection. The conversation with Dan was edited for length and clarity.

Dan Egan
Photo credit: Sarah Egan

Q. How did you start writing about the Great Lakes?

A.  I grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and then after college moved out west to work at newspapers in Idaho and Utah. When I moved back to my home state of Wisconsin and took a job at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, I didn’t have a beat. I was a general assignment feature writer, but after spending the better part of a decade out essentially in the desert, you come back to the Great Lakes, you look at them completely differently. So I was just kind of drawn to them through my work, and I found myself writing lots of stories about the lakes — not necessarily their ecology, but fishermen and development along the lakes. It just evolved into a beat after a couple of years, and I've been doing that since.

Q. Did you have any science training?

A. Early on in my career, I had no science training. I took biology for non-science majors in college. I did, in 2011 and '12, go to Columbia University, and got a master's in Science and Environmental Journalism. This program really made me think about how much I don't know.

Credit: W.W. Norton & Company

As a daily newspaper reporter, as long as you're aware of how naïve or ignorant you are, it can be kind of a strength, because my job is to communicate to people who are equally naïve and ignorant. You report, so as a reporter, you don't have to be the expert. In some ways, it's good not to be.

Q. Do you feel like you're being treated like you're the expert now that you've written this book?

A.  I do, and that's a little unnerving, because I'm far from it. But then, on the other hand, I am, in a relative sense. I know a lot more than the average person. That's kind of a goal of the book: to provide somebody with base-level Great Lakes literacy so they understand the basic ecology of the lakes and what's happened to them since whites came into the area and started channeling them and bringing in invasive species that really, really changed the native ecosystem.

Q. In your book, it sounds like you’re hopeful that humans can learn from their past mistakes and fix the mess that they've created in the Great Lakes.

A. "Fix" is a relative word. We're never going to bring back all the native species that we lost, and we're never going to get rid of the invasive species that have been introduced. Lake Erie, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, Lake Superior—vast as they are, they were as ecologically isolated as a pond in the middle of the forest until we punched these canals out the back side through Chicago and out the front side through the Saint Lawrence Seaway.

The Great Lakes fisheries collapsed because of the invasion of sea lampreys, which swam up the early shipping channels around Niagara Falls in the 1920s. They make their living by attaching to the bellies of host fish and just sucking the blood out of them. By the late 1940s, everywhere but Lake Superior, lake trout were basically gone. Without an apex predator, everything went nuts. Unfortunately, behind the lampreys came alewives.

For a period, a new species was being discovered in the lakes every six to eight months. While some species slipped in without a ripple of an effect, some were completely devastating, like the quagga mussels and the zebra mussels and this fish-killing virus called VHS.

These invasions have slowed down markedly over the last decade or so because ships sailing in from overseas have started flushing their ballast tanks with mid-ocean saltwater. But that doesn’t mean that the problem is solved, because there's just so many different forms of life in so many different stages.

Right now, I am optimistic that if we can just adequately deal with this ballast water problem, and stop these invasions, then nature has a way of finding a new balance. The native lake trout population has been sustained with hatchery stocking for decades, and they're talking about ending that program on Lake Huron because the lake trout are doing so well. The top of the food chain is starting to look more like its old self than it has any time in, say, the last 60 or 70 years. The bottom of the food chain is completely different, but the native fish species' resilience is really showing up right now.

Q. The readership for your newspaper has dropped, like most other newspapers, and the industry still seems to be threatened by the economics of online publishing. Can you talk about the role of newspapers in allowing research and work like this to happen?

A. This book never would have come about without all that I learned during a decade's worth of reporting for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Subscribers and advertisers paid for that. Newsrooms are so critical, not just to perform their government watchdog role, but to just educate the public about the world around them. It's stunning what people don't know about the Great Lakes.

Associated homepage image credit: NOAA / CC BY-SA 2.0