About Our Lakes: Economy

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Sailing, agriculture, boating and shipping images


Early settlers were attracted to the Great Lakes region because of its agricultural lands. Dairy and meat production for local consumption became the dominant agriculture. As time went by, the growing urban populations created a demand for specialty crops such as fruit, vegetables and tobacco. Today, corn, soybeans, and hay are the primary crops in the Great Lakes region. The northwestern region of Michigan's Lower Peninsula is known for its cherry production.

Commercial and Sport Fisheries

Commercial and sport fisheries are important industries in the Great Lakes region. Commercial fishing began in about 1820 and has increased ever since. About 65 million pounds of fish per year are harvested from the lakes, contributing more than $1 billion to the Great Lakes economy. Primary commercial catches include whitefish, smelt, walleye, and perch, while sport anglers prefer salmon, steelhead, walleye, lake trout, perch and bass. The commercial fishery in the region has been declining however, due to over-fishing, pollution, habitat destruction, and introduction of invasive species.

Sport fishery is a huge tourist attraction, which helps to build the economy of the Great Lakes region. Sport fishery contributes $4 billion to the economy. Sport fishery has also been responsible for the unintended introduction of some invasive species. Exotic fish such as salmon were purposely introduced to help boost the sport fishing industry.


The history of shipping practices in the Great Lakes begins in 1825, when the Erie Canal was used to carry settlers west and to carry freight east. The St. Lawrence Seaway was completed in 1959 and allowed ocean vessels access to the Great Lakes for shipping purposes. Over 200 million tons of cargo are shipped every year through the Great Lakes. The three main cargoes are iron ore, coal, and grain. Other modes of transportation such as trucking and railroads now compete with shipping in the Great Lakes, and thus shipping has not expanded much recently.

Recreation and Tourism

The Great Lakes provide a popular tourist attraction. The region is home to many park systems, conservation and wilderness areas, and beaches. Fishing, diving, and boating are a few of the many recreational activities in the region. One-third of all registered boaters in the U.S. reside in the Great Lakes basin. Recreation and tourism serve as important economic contributors to many parts of the Great Lakes region. Boats, marinas, resorts, restaurants, and the production and sale of outdoor sports equipment, all contribute to the region's economy.


Industrialization of the Great Lakes region began in the early 20th century. There were many harmful environmental impacts of early industrialization, but many are being assessed and fixed today. Historically, the major industries in the Great Lakes region have produced steel, paper, chemicals, automobiles and other manufactured goods. Auto manufacturing and steel production continue to be the primary industries in the region.

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