SUTTONS BAY — Tom Kelly launched the Inland Seas Education Association in 1989 with the idea of protecting the Great Lakes. Since then, his emphasis has changed — as has the whole ecosystem of the lakes.
“Now we’re using ships and kids to change the Great Lakes,” he said just days before his retirement as ISEA’s first and only executive director. “And I’ll be just as interested.”
Since 1989, zebra mussels, quagga mussels and 150 other invasive species have migrated into the Great Lakes system in the ballast tanks of international freighters.
Their voracious zooplankton eating habits have clarified the water, which has allowed more sunlight to reach lake bottomlands,created underwater growing grounds for algae and a whole raft of problems for Great Lakes native fish and water birds.
ISEA has schooled 98,800 students, young and old, during the last 25 years and expects to hit the 100,000 mark during schoolship season in mid-2014.
Kelly’s last day of work was Dec. 20, but he will continue to work on donor relations and as a captain on ISEA’s 77-foot science education Schooner Inland Seas.
He said it’s a little early to tell yet what effect the program has had on stewardship, but the aquatic biologist is heartened by letters and talks with former students who have grown up, attended college and told him how their schoolship experience changed their lives.
Friends and colleagues describe Kelly as a humble, knowledgeable and thoughtful conservationist and scientist who thoroughly researches before making decisions.
“He has long-range vision and staying power,” said Jim Olson, a Traverse City environmental attorney. “He stays on course and that’s reflected in ISEA. The nonprofit he has built is groundbreaking, not to mention the body of knowledge and information he’s gathered.”
Kelly won a Lighthouse Award earlier this year from FLOW (For Love of Water), a water policy organization founded by Olson.