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magazine / nd06

November/December 2006 issue


Forgotten lake
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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