How Far We’ve Come: The Bad Old Days of Waste Dumping in the Great Lakes

By John Gannon

My first job after graduating from high school in 1961 was working on the stewards’ crew of the S. S. Aquarama, a car ferry-passenger ship that ran from Detroit to Cleveland. It was put out of business the next year upon completion of freeways between the two cities. Its advertising promotion was, “take the ferry and avoid the hard drive between Detroit and Cleveland.”

The S. S. Aquarama was nine decks high, including two decks for vehicles, a ballroom with entertainment, four bars and three restaurants. It was a converted former World War II troop carrier and was fast for its size. My main duty was to be the entrée server in the buffet restaurant. That was not enough for my eight-hour day, so I also served breakfast to the officers in the morning and closed down a grill restaurant in the evening.

The latter job included cleaning the grill and periodically draining the spent oil from the fryer. When I had a full five-gallon pail, I was instructed to take the pail in the elevator, take it down to the water level and dump the oil into the Detroit River through a large, open hatch. The hatch was large enough for me to fall into the river with the pail if I was not careful. For my “safety” I was instructed to do this in the river before the ship got into Lake Erie when the rocking motion of the ship might make this task more dangerous.

When the ship was in Detroit overnight, it docked just downstream of the Ambassador Bridge. I recall the flotsam and jetsam that accumulated between the ship and the breakwater overnight. Besides occasional branches, logs, bottles, and cans, my lasting impression was of the accumulated oil sheen and white tallow balls.

While working on my Master’s degree at the University of Michigan (U of M) from 1965-67, I worked as fisheries technician at the Ann Arbor federal fishery lab (now the U.S. Geological Survey Great Lakes Science Center), including duty aboard the lab’s fishery research vessel, R/V Cisco. In those days, the garbage can was lashed to the fantail. When we were offshore, the deckhand would empty the trash while the ship was underway. The ship’s crew were former commercial fishers, and just as most folks in that era, it was common practice to dump waste into the lake. That’s what everyone did, and as the ship continued to steam ahead, the garbage became “out-of-sight, out-of-mind.”

I can’t recall whether the practice ended before my tenure at the lab was complete, but I suspect the practice ended soon thereafter as the environmental awareness movement was gaining momentum and the “Don’t do it in the lake” signs and slogans became prominent. I did some fieldwork on U of M’s research vessel, R/V Inland Seas, and lots of fieldwork on University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s R/V Alewife and R/V North Star (now the R/V Neeskay) from 1968-72, and garbage was no longer dumped into the lakes from research vessels.

But old habits sometimes die hard. I co-taught the fish ecology class at the Ohio State University’s Stone Biological Laboratory from 1995-2002. I was surprised in those early years that there was no recycling at the lab, especially being on an island. One summer, Rozanne Fortner taught an environmental education/communications class, and her students started a recycling program that continued thereafter. Several years after the program was initiated, we discovered that the head maintenance man at the lab thought recycling was poppycock. After students, faculty and staff separated recyclables from trash, the maintenance staff threw it all into the same dumpster. Once this was discovered, the practice was eliminated, and student-faculty-initiated recycling continues to this day.

John Gannon is a limnologist and fisheries biologist. He received degrees in biology at Wayne State University, fisheries at the University of Michigan and zoology (limnology) at the University of Wisconsin. He spent 12 years in academia and 29 years in Federal government service. He worked on the Great Lakes his entire career. Now retired, his career evolved from research to research program management and to the interface between research and policy. He held positions at the University of Michigan Biological Station, SUNY-Oswego, The USGS Great Lakes Science Center (and its predecessors), and the International Joint Commission.

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