||November/December 2006 issue||
Over 30 years, Lake Winnipeg has developed the worst
algae problem of any major lake in the world. So why is
science so late in coming to the rescue?
Excerpt of story by Allan Casey with photography by Thomas Fricke
THE SHIP IS MUCH TOO BIG for the tiny wooden dock, but the MV Namao is determined
to make landfall. Though the mighty Saskatchewan River has been tamed by a
hydroelectric dam here in Grand Rapids, Man., the current is still plenty
fast as the runoff from much of the Canadian prairie squeezes through a narrow
channel before spilling into the north end of Lake Winnipeg. The captain deftly
spins the ship around and drifts her down to the pier, as some of the local
fishermen unloading their pickerel catch stop to watch. They’ve seen
this old Coast Guard vessel a hundred times before, but she looks different
in her new livery of bright blue paint. The deckhands see they have an audience
and want to look sharp, though they’ve sailed together for only a few
days. They make a neat job of docking, but the paint is so fresh, they can’t
keep some of it from grinding off as they come alongside. Two women walking
on the road stop, and one reads aloud the words on the vessel’s topsides: "’Lake
Winnipeg Research Consortium.’ That’s good!"
For the people who live on the shores of the tenth largest freshwater lake
in the world, the Namao symbolizes hope for a vast, and threatened, aquatic
ecosystem. Perhaps science can rescue this inland sea from problems they have
been noticing for years. But so far, it is science on a shoestring. The 34-metre
government-surplus ship was diverted from the scrap pile to offer first aid
to a lake that has almost been forgotten. Funding for this voyage was cobbled
together, catching the little vessel in dry dock with her paint still wet.
And those aboard realize all too keenly that the Namao’s mission is
as much about public relations as it is about water samples and plankton hauls.
Lake Winnipeg has been a source of mystery and speculation for years. Commercial
and aboriginal fishermen sometimes found their nets clogged with brown algae,
though their annual pickerel catches were on the rise. E. coli swimming bans
became more frequent on the many beaches that line the lake’s southern
shores. And the great flood of 1997 was rumoured to have unleashed contaminants.
Then, in 1999, a trial cruise of the Namao revealed a blight of toxic algae
spreading across the remote North Basin of the lake, and satellite images
showed the full extent. Comparisons with the polluted state of Lake Erie 30
years ago began to circulate in the provincial media, and an infamous headline
appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press: "Lake Winnipeg Dying?"
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How do you get through the waning weeks of winter?