Western Lake Erie

The Great Lakes hold 20% of the Earth’s fresh surface water. Western Lake Erie is the shallowest, warmest and most biologically productive area in all of the Great Lakes. Spanning 150 miles of shoreline from Point Pelee, Ontario to Sandusky Bay, Ohio, it supports globally-designated important migratory bird habitat, billions of dollars in commercial and recreational fisheries, provides drinking water for 11 million people and an abundance of recreational benefits. Today, only 5% of the ecologically and economically significant coastal wetlands on which people depend for these valued services remain. Western Lake Erie, like all of the Great Lakes, is at risk from impacts brought on by a changing climate. Storm damage, primarily from river flooding following heavy rains, to natural and built infrastructure is on the rise. Historic decadal trends in Great Lakes water levels are increasingly erratic.

There is a growing awareness of the risk posed by extreme weather and climate change, risks that are especially relevant to communities located at river mouths, where these climate impacts are likely to be concentrated. However, communities often have limited access to the information and tools available to protect the people and natural assets they value through specific planning or conservation actions that reduce risk. Mapping projected changes and identifying areas for conservation action will help lessen negative impacts and allow for improved local and regional coastal resilience planning. The current and future resilience of western Lake Erie depends on the ability to visualize coming changes, plan for the future and take action to avoid future costs to the economy, citizens and environment.





Great Lakes coastal areas – home to over 30 million people in the U.S. and Canada – are highly dynamic environments, subjected to natural fluctuations in water levels, wind, waves and temperatures. These variable conditions are intensified by climate change, resulting in flooding, erosion and storm surge that pose hazards for public safety, private property and ecosystem services. Coastal communities are vulnerable to climate impacts stemming from upstream watersheds (e.g., increased frequency and severity of flooding) and the Great Lakes (e.g., increasing severity of storm damage). Impacts to individual coastal communities vary depending on physical and ecological variables and on the design and capacity of urban infrastructure and water management systems. Natural Great Lakes water level fluctuations (seasonal and interannual) combined with ground water levels influence the amount of direct impact from flooding and storm damage on built infrastructure and natural systems.

Since 1958, days with heavy precipitation have increased over the region by 31%. Climate models predict this trend to continue in the Great Lakes, with wild swings between heavy rain events and severely dry conditions. Projected increases in frequency and intensity of spring storm events will result in more sediment and nutrient runoff from upper watershed agricultural fields, resulting in poorer water quality and reduced function in Lake Erie riverine and coastal wetlands. Increased incidence of summer harmful algal blooms will lead to fish kills, reduced recreation and tourism opportunities (swimming, boating, birding), and tainted drinking water.

Wetland monitoring crew, Erie Marsh Preserve, Michigan. Long-term monitoring of plants, animals, water quality, and other variables is an essential part of wetland restoration and management. Monitoring also allows tracking of wetland health and quality across both space and time. Photo Credit: Chris May/The Nature Conservancy


Fishing industry: Commercial and recreational fishing contribute substantially to region’s economy. Although the scale of the fishery in Lake Erie is impressive, it is only three-quarters of its historical size, as it faces pressure from over-fishing (mostly historic), pollution, habitat destruction and fragmentation (due to dams and other barriers), and exotic species. Native migratory fish use the tributaries and wetlands around western Lake Erie for a portion of their life cycle as well as the warm, shallow waters of western Lake Erie for spawning and nursery habitat. Recreational fishing generates $1.4 billion annually in western Lake Erie. The commercial fishery in US and Canadian waters generate large annual revenues as well – $4.6 million in the U.S. and $33 million in Canada (where walleye is fished commercially).

Drinking water and recreation: Lake Erie supplies drinking water to 11 million residents with roughly 59 billion gallons of surface water withdrawn every day. Parks and beaches provide access to nature and recreational opportunities during every season, contributing more than $6 million annually. There are more than 2.5 million boats registered in the region. Nearly 300 shipwrecks, managed as a public trust, serve as important historical and cultural resources that bring annual diving and boat tourism to the area. Waterfowl hunting is an important driver of coastal wetland management; many public and privately owned wetland areas are managed primarily to provide opportunities to hunt waterfowl. Some private hunt clubs in western Lake Erie exceed 150 years in age. The success of these recreational activities depends on clean, accessible water. Hunting for other wildlife, including white-tailed deer and small game, also influences habitat management in the region. Birding is a big contributor to the local economy; surveyed stakeholders identified birding as the number one ecosystem service provided by Lake Erie as it brings tens of millions of dollars annually to the region.

Habitats and Species

Native migratory fish habitat: Walleye, lake whitefish and lake sturgeon are important native migratory fish that spawn throughout western Lake Erie, which is also the most popular sport fishing destination throughout the Great Lakes. The region supports a sport and recreational fishery estimated to generate hundreds of millions of dollars annually. It is recognized for its world-renowned walleye fishery as well as for yellow perch, smallmouth bass and steelhead. Lake and stream habitat maintenance is crucial to sustain fish populations in the basin and support these socioeconomically valuable fisheries. Migratory fish habitat in streams is mostly cut off from Lake Erie by failing or poorly designed road-stream crossings and other structures. With increasingly common and intense storms, water quality in streams and the nearshore of Lake Erie will degrade. Excess sediments and nutrients will further degrade spawning and nursery habitat for migratory fish, impacting recreational and commercial fishing activities and local economies.

Migratory birds: Located at the intersection of two migratory flyways, the western Lake Erie coastal region is composed of emergent marsh, forested wetland, oak savanna, alvar (limestone bedrock) and forest. It is a nationally- and internationally- designated important bird area for hundreds of species of waterfowl. Stopover habitat, much of which occurs within 25km (15.5 miles) of the western Lake Erie shoreline, provides critical foraging and resting areas for hungry and tired migrating birds. These areas have been identified and mapped through the Great Lakes Stopover Study and accompanying Great Lakes Migratory Bird Portal. In addition to this coastal stopover habitat providing habitat and food for birds, it is also critical habitat for rare plants, reptiles and amphibians. This important migratory corridor attracts birders from all over the world at The Biggest Week in American Birding, generating over $26 million in ecotourism during spring migration, as well as fall raptor festivals. The impacts of climatic changes on stopover habitat for birds may lie primarily on shifting seasons. Spring migration of song birds, in particular, occurs when coastal vegetation leafs out and insects hatch and become available as a food source. Should the coincidence of these events become altered, birds will find it increasingly difficult to obtain adequate nutrition during rest stops, and mortality will increase, potentially leading to lower numbers of migrants, decreasing popularity of birding and diminishing economic benefits to coastal communities.

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) wades in the marshes of Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, situated along the shoreline of Lake Erie in Ohio. The wetlands of Ottawa NWR represents one of the few remaining marsh areas along the southern shoreline of Lake Erie, a major conservation concern of The Nature Conservancy’s Ohio chapter. Photo Credit: Mark Godfrey/The Nature Conservancy

Coastal wetlands: Coastal wetlands for the purpose of this collaboration include wetlands with surface water or ground water connectivity to Lake Erie and occur in three general settings: on the coast; in the lower reaches of river mouths; and behind protective natural barriers.

Coastal wetlands in western Lake Erie provide habitat, serve as natural buffers against flooding and wave energy, and filter drinking water for more than 11 million people in the area. The wetlands are dynamic, shifting inland and lakeward in response to cycles in lake levels. Much of the biological productivity and diversity in the Great Lakes occurs in coastal wetlands. Draining and filling of coastal wetlands for agriculture and urban development, loss of hydrologic connectivity and invasive species are the primary causes of the wetland degradation and loss, leaving only 5% of historic coastal wetlands in western Lake Erie. These wetlands continue to be at risk due to increasing development pressure and invasive species. As the amplitude of natural lake levels increases (i.e., higher highs and lower lows), coastal wetlands are more likely to be super-inundated in high water years, squeezing them out, especially where highways and other development obstructs movement of wetland vegetation inland. Coastal wetlands may diminish during these periods, leaving coastal communities more exposed to storm damage and flooding. In extreme low water years, invasive wetland plants such as common reed (Phragmites australis) are likely to colonize exposed lake bottom habitat and from there more rapidly invade coastal wetlands. Large patches of invasive plants have been shown to reduce shoreline property values and access to the lake for recreation or other purposes.


Lake Erie Biodiversity Conservation Strategy: In support of the Lake Erie Lakewide Action and Management Plan, The Nature Conservancy in Michigan, along with Michigan Natural Features Inventory and Nature Conservancy Canada, developed the Lake Erie Biodiversity Conservation Strategy (LEBCS). Incorporating the input of almost 200 people from around the lake, this report identifies eight biodiversity conservation targets – including coastal wetlands – and recommends strategies for overcoming threats to those targets. The LEBCS identified a goal to increase the total area of coastal wetlands around Western Lake Erie by 10% (from 2011 levels) by 2030, which translates to between 2,500 and 6,400 acres of new wetlands (depending on wetland mapping approach).

Western Lake Erie Coastal Conservation Vision Mapping: The Western Lake Erie Coastal Conservation Vision mapping identifies where to work to achieve the ecological goals identified in the LEBCS and enhance human well-being targets. The cost required to meet these integrated goals was also estimated. From concept development to final outputs, this work benefited from suggestions and data provided by practitioners and researchers in Michigan, Ohio and Ontario. Employing the spatial conservation planning software, Marxan with Zones, in an innovative manner, the Vision identifies optimal areas to achieve ecological goals and benefit human well-being at the lowest socioeconomic cost. Detailed methods for the analysis are available here. The most important areas for coastal conservation on land are located within 3-4 km (2-2.5 mi) of the shoreline, with some areas farther inland. The approach is now being expanded north through the St. Clair-Detroit River System and into Saginaw Bay by the Upper Midwest & Great Lakes Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LLC) Coastal Conservation Working Group.


Stakeholder Engagement: Three workshops were held in 2014 to disseminate the Western Lake Erie Coastal Conservation Vision mapping concept and early outputs to stakeholders in Michigan, Ohio, and Ontario, engaging approximately 100 attendees from federal, state, and local government, academic institutions, nonprofit organizations and the private sector. Data sets, analysis methods, and preliminary outputs were shared at each workshop. Attendees provided valuable feedback for improved analysis and a follow-up webinar was held to show how feedback was incorporated.

Spatial Road map to inform and justify actions

Stakeholder workshop to review and provide feedback on the preliminary results of the Western Lake Erie Coastal Conservation Vision. The Vision integrates ecological and human well-being values to identify locations for projects that benefit both nature and people. Maumee Bay State Park Lodge and Conference Center, June 25, 2014. Photo Credit: Katie Kahl/The Nature Conservancy

Next steps

The Nature Conservancy’s western Lake Erie coastal strategy team and partners are working to integrate results from the Biodiversity Conservation Strategy and the Coastal Conservation Vision Mapping with complementary tools that inform Great Lakes coastal wetland conservation and restoration.

Existing tools for western Lake Erie:

  1. Great Lakes Coastal Wetland Decision Support Tool considers existing wetlands connected to Great Lakes and prioritizes efforts based on condition and user-defined objectives (http://www.greatlakeswetlands.org/Home.vbhtml).
  2. The Western Lake Erie Restoration Assessment (WLERA) mapping application considers former or diked wetlands that are in restorable land cover and within the elevation range of Lake Erie water level fluctuations (https://glcwra.wim.usgs.gov/wlera/).
  3. The Western Lake Erie Coastal Conservation Visioning (WLECCV) mapping application considers the full range of land cover types within 25 kilometers of Lake Erie, and optimizes investment by considering the contribution of conservation or restoration to regional ecological and socioeconomic goals (nature.org/wlecoastal).

Integrating these three tools within the Coastal Resilience approach and mapping platform will provide a more holistic and regional-level view of the current and projected state of western Lake Erie to better inform decision-making and the implementation of nature-based solutions. Conservation actions should meet measurable ecological goals and sustain nature-based activities that contribute positively to the region’s communities and economies.

Applying Coastal Resilience tools to western Lake Erie will provide stakeholders in the area with the opportunity to customize results for local needs while visualizing potential impacts of future flooding and wave damage on valued resources. The following ecological and socioeconomic data can inform decision making when viewed alongside flooding and lake level scenarios as well as the top 25% WLE Coastal Conservation Vision results:

  • Ecological variables:
    • Potential wetland restorability index
    • Coastal terrestrial biodiversity significance
    • Inland waterfowl stopover habitat
    • Coastal land bird stopover habitat
  • Socioeconomic variables:
    • Boating access
    • Proximity to recreation areas
    • Proximity to birding hotspots