By: Sarah Opfer, Great Lakes Regional Coordinator, NOAA Marine Debris Program
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, commonly referred to in the region as just the ‘U.P.’, is home to Yoopers (full-time residents), pasties (crust pockets filled with veggies and meat; pronounced ‘pass-tees’), and tourists galore. This land “above the bridge” is a place where you can touch three of the five Great Lakes, visit beautiful waterfalls, see Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and hike pine forests. However, this highly rural area is not exempt from the plague of marine debris.
In the past few years, NOAA has become aware of a new (to us) type of marine debris that is an issue in the Manistique River, MI. The debris of concern here is historic sawmill debris, which includes sawdust and woodchip deposits.
Most readers are probably thinking, “Wait…marine debris in the Great Lakes?” Yes, marine debris is not restricted just to our salty coasts. The Great Lakes share many of the issues that our oceans do as well, including marine debris. Think of them as another of our major coastlines.
While we may all call marine debris different things in different places (litter, trash, etc.), it still boils down to man-made materials that are discarded, disposed of, or abandoned in our waterways and on our coasts. There are many types of debris in the environment, but they all share a common origin – people. Woodchips and sawdust in this instance are considered marine debris because it is a processed material that would not otherwise be found naturally in the environment, unlike downed trees for example.
Sawdust and woodchip debris in Manistique originated during the lumbering era of the late 1800s-early 1900s. Sawmills often disposed of sawdust and woodchips – which were byproducts of operations – into the Manistique River and surrounding Lake Michigan during this time. They produced an estimated 5.1 million tons of sawdust, and some of it still makes appearances on the coasts and in the river sediments today (Macalady & Wissler 1981). For the Yoopers – Holy wah, eh?!
Keep in mind though that this is a historic issue. Modern sawmills are extremely efficient at reusing or repurposing waste and as far as we are aware, they are not currently contributing to this marine debris problem in Manistique. We believe the material found in the area is over 100 years old, which is mind-boggling to me!
Another waste produced by these sawmills was slabwood, and Manistique is home to several slabwood islands. These islands were built using the discarded slabwood and put in place to act as slips for the loading of lumber onto ships that entered the harbor. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality completed a study which found that this slabwood was providing additional fish habitat diversity and therefore had a strong fish community presence. In other words, and as most fisherman know, fish love to hang out in these types of things! This type of sawmill debris does not appear to be negatively impacting the environment in Manistique.
While the exact impacts of the sawdust and the woodchips are yet unknown, it is believed that this historic material may be smothering the bottom-environment, limiting environmental productivity and habitat while contributing to the degradation of fish and wildlife populations.
In Manistique, historic sawdust and woodchips may also be a source of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) contamination. Before the 1970s, PCBs were chemicals mixtures used as a transfer agent in local carbonless copy paper processing plants. When PCBs entered the environment, some were likely to absorb onto organic material that were closely associated with the river sediments, like the woodchips and sawdust. PCB production in the U.S. was banned in the 1970s because of concerns over their toxicity.
Woody debris and chemical contamination continues to degrade river and lake habitat today. This environmentally degraded site—identified as an Area of Concern (AOC) by the Great Lakes Water Quality agreement—has been plagued by fish consumption advisories and restrictions on dredging since the mid-1980s.
Starting this year, NOAA received Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funds from the U.S. EPA to begin to address the sawdust/woodchip debris and associated sediment contamination in the Manistique River AOC.
The goal is to complete all necessary restoration/removal actions by the end of 2014 so the river can be delisted as an AOC. This is a major undertaking and collaborative effort in which NOAA is engaged with various other agencies and groups. Those involved include the City of Manistique, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, numerous offices within NOAA (Office of Response & Restoration, Marine Debris Program, Restoration Center, National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Army Corps Engineers, and U.S. Geologic Survey. This group brings together technical and scientific capabilities and expertise to develop a comprehensive management approach for restoration of the Manistique River AOC. This truly is a government-wide project. As such, it has gained recognition as a regional habitat initiative for NOAA’s Habitat Blueprint.
Work in Manistique is currently in the development phase. Researchers are currently working to answer various questions, contractors are coming on board and getting up to speed, and detailed planning has begun. The next step, which will start soon, is the development of a feasibility study and restoration designs to look at various options for restoring the site. Once a design and plan is selected, work on restoring this beautiful river and delisting the AOC will begin! Watch for further updates on this project throughout the next few years!