An integrated approach to assessing multiple stressors for coastal Lake Superior

Gerald J Niemi, Euan D Reavie, Gregory S. Peterson, John R Kelly, Carol A. Johnston, Lucinda B Johnson, Robert W. Howe, George E Host, Tom P. Hollenhorst, Nicholas P. Danz, Jan J.H. Ciborowski, Terry N Brown, Valerie J Brady, Richard P Axler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Biological indicators can be used both to estimate ecological condition and to suggest plausible causes of ecosystem degradation across the U.S. Great Lakes coastal region. Here we use data on breeding bird, diatom, fish, invertebrate, and wetland plant communities to develop robust indicators of ecological condition of the U.S. Lake Superior coastal zone. Sites were selected as part of a larger, stratified random design for the entire U.S. Great Lakes coastal region, covering gradients of anthropogenic stress defined by over 200 stressor variables (e.g. agriculture, altered land cover, human populations, and point source pollution). A total of 89 locations in Lake Superior were sampled between 2001 and 2004 including 31 sites for stable isotope analysis of benthic macroinvertebrates, 62 sites for birds, 35 for diatoms, 32 for fish and macroinvertebrates, and 26 for wetland vegetation. A relationship between watershed disturbance metrics and 15N levels in coastal macroinvertebrates confirmed that watershed-based stressor gradients are expressed across Lake Superior's coastal ecosystems, increasing confidence in ascribing causes of biological responses to some landscape activities. Several landscape metrics in particular-agriculture, urbanization, human population density, and road density-strongly influenced the responses of indicator species assemblages. Conditions were generally good in Lake Superior, but in some areas watershed stressors produced degraded conditions that were similar to those in the southern and eastern U.S. Great Lakes. The following indicators were developed based on biotic responses to stress in Lake Superior in the context of all the Great Lakes: (1) an index of ecological condition for breeding bird communities, (2) diatom-based nutrient and solids indicators, (3) fish and macroinvertebrate indicators for coastal wetlands, and (4) a non-metric multidimensional scaling for wetland plants corresponding to a cumulative stress index. These biotic measures serve as useful indicators of the ecological condition of the Lake Superior coast; collectively, they provide a baseline assessment of selected biological conditions for the U.S. Lake Superior coastal region and prescribe a means to detect change over time.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)356-375
Number of pages20
JournalAquatic Ecosystem Health and Management
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2011

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
J. Hanowski was instrumental in gathering, compiling, and analyzing the breeding bird data. Diatom identification and enumeration results were supported by N. Andresen, G. Sgro, M. Ferguson, and A. Kireta; and diatom taxonomic support was provided by J. Kingston, E. Stoermer, and J. Johansen. D. Breneman, J. Schuldt, J.D. Holland, J.P. Gath-man, R. Hell, A. Ly, J. Baillargeon, and J. Wiklund provided assistance with fish and macroinvertebrate data and sampling. M. Aho, A. Boers, K. Bailey Boomer, M. Bourdaghs, K. Cappillino, R. Clark, S. Cronk, A. Freeman, C. Frieswyk, D. James, C. Johnson, L. Ladwig, A. Marsh, M. Tittler, L. Vaccaro, and C. Williams collected vegetation field data. We thank D. McKenney and P. Papadopol of the Great Lakes Forestry Centre for providing the GDD data. Water quality sampling and analysis were supported by J. Henneck, E. Ruzycki, J. Reed, and J. Ameel. R. Regal provided statistical advice. Although this research has been funded wholly or in part by the U.S. EPA through cooperative agreement EPA/R-82867501 to the Great Lakes Environmental Indicators project, and through grant EPA/R-82877701 to L. Johnson, it has not been subjected to the agency’s required peer and policy review and therefore does not necessarily reflect the views of the agency and no official endorsement should be inferred. This is contribution number 521 from the Center for Water and the Environment, Natural Resources Research Institute, University of Minnesota Duluth.


  • birds
  • diatoms
  • fish
  • indicators
  • macroinvertebrates
  • plants


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