Great Lakes and the Economy

2 ships on the st. clair riverA regional powerhouse

Encompassing eight U.S. states and two Canadian provinces, the Great Lakes region is an economic powerhouse. For more than a century, the area has been a center for manufacturing, international shipping, and innovative research and development. Today, cities like Chicago, Toronto, and Detroit contribute to a regional economy that supports 107 million residents and, if it were its own country, would have one of the highest national gross domestic products (GDPs) in the world (source).

See this infographic from the Council of the Great Lakes Region for many more details and statistics about the Great Lakes economy. Learn more about the history of economic activity in the Great Lakes from the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

Blue economy

While the value of many human industries can be easily quantified, economists often struggle to attach dollar values to variables like clean drinking water or the impact of aquatic invasive species. The relatively new concepts of “blue economy” and “blue accounting” help raise the economic profile of activities and quality-of-life factors in, on, around, or related to water.

Bringing the value of water and water-dependent activities into the equation helps decision makers allocate resources, prioritize land uses, and better protect water-related values for future generations.


Great Lakes jobs

The Great Lakes are key to the region’s economy — in 2009, more than 1.5 million Great Lakes-related jobs generated $62 billion in wages. Find more details and analysis in Michigan Sea Grant’s 2011 jobs report.

The economic benefits of the Great Lakes are especially noticeable in Michigan. According to the 2009 Michigan’s Great Lakes Jobs report, an estimated 23 percent of Michigan’s payroll is associated with the Great Lakes. The lakes strongly influence eight industries, accounting for 15 percent of jobs in the state.

The economic importance of the Great Lakes further emphasizes the need to maintain water quality, healthy coastal ecosystems, recreational and commercial access to the lakes, and a safe navigational system. The 2009 Michigan’s Economic Vitality report details the benefits of restoration efforts in the lakes.


Many organizations are involved in quantifying and strengthening economic activity in the Great Lakes for the benefit of the region. Find more information on some of them below: