Skip to Content

Who Has Control of the Great Lakes?

You’re missing out if you’ve never had the chance to visit any of the Great Lakes. However, because they’re so massive, ownership and control of them can be confusing. Luckily, the states that border the lakes play nicer than most siblings.

So who controls the Great Lakes? Keep reading and find out. The answer might surprise you!

What Are the Great Lakes?

The Great Lakes include five freshwater lakes located in the northern Midwest region of the United States. 

The lakes serve as a small portion of the border between the United States and Canada. We have Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario.

At over 94,000 square miles, the Great Lakes make up the largest group of freshwater bodies on Earth. They contain 20% of the world’s surface freshwater and 90% of the freshwater in the United States.

In addition to providing drinking water for more than 40 million people, they create 1.5 million jobs and house thousands of plants and animals.

The Great Lakes touch eight states in the United States. These include Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. 

In addition to the United States, the Great Lakes also border the Canadian province of Ontario. Four of the five lakes border Canada. 

Are the Great Lakes International Waters?

Four Great Lakes are international waters: Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario. However, Lake Michigan is not. 

The Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 is the agreement between the United States and Canada to resolve and prevent disputes over the use of the waters shared between the countries. 

Pro Tip: You’ll want to know Which Great Lake Is the Dirtiest before you dive in for a swim.

View of Great Lake
Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario make up the Great Lakes.

Who Has Control of the Great Lakes?

The Public Trust Doctrine applies to the Great Lakes in Canada and the United States. So who controls the Great Lakes? Ultimately, the general public owns the lakes and has the right to use them. 

While the government or private property owners may possess the land surrounding the Great Lakes, the water remains for public use. 

Governmental authorities partner to ensure everyone enjoying the Great Lakes follows the necessary rules and regulations. 

The Department of Natural resources for each state manages the waters within its boundaries. This is important if you plan to fish because you must follow the rules specific to that state. You may need to purchase a fishing license for where you want to fish.

Which Great Lake Is Solely Owned by the United States?

Lake Michigan is the only Great Lake not considered international waters. While Lake Michigan combines with Lake Huron, it doesn’t border Canada. As a result, the United States has sole discretion regarding the waters contained within its boundaries. 

However, like the rest of the Great Lakes, the general public owns the water. Individuals can use and recreate on it but must follow all applicable rules and regulations.

Who Owns the Land Under the Great Lakes?

While the general public owns the water, land under the Great Lakes within a state’s designated borders remains the state’s property. 

The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) patrols, regulates and carries authority within their respective state boundaries.

If you plan to fish or boat on the Great Lakes, follow the regulations for the state you’re visiting. If not, you could find yourself in over your head with legal troubles.

Kids playing in Lake Michigan
Lake Michigan is the only Great Lake owned by the USA.

Can a Ship Enter the Great Lakes?

Ships come and go on the Great Lakes all of the time. Ships can use the 2,340 miles of the Saint Lawrence Seaway to access the lakes from the Atlantic Ocean. And the ships can go as far west as the port of Duluth, Minn., on Lake Superior.

Construction on the Saint Lawrence Seaway began in 1954, and the first ships gained access to the Great Lakes in 1959. 

These days, the seaway serves various industries, including farming, mining, and manufacturing. However, it has a tremendous impact on many commercial sectors.

Does the US Navy Operate in the Great Lakes?

Many people aren’t aware that the Great Lakes are home to the Naval Station Great Lakes (NSGL). This is the site of the only Boot Camp for the Navy and is the largest training installation for this military branch. 

However, the Great Lakes also have several naval craft serving as museums. The lakes have five submarines, two destroyers, and a cruiser. 

Additionally, Fincantieri Marinette Marine builds ships for the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy and sits on the Great Lakes. You can see some of their vessels from time to time.

Pro Tip: Can you guess what The Deadliest Lake in America? We uncovered the truth!

Are the Great Lakes Worth Visiting? 

Visiting the Great Lakes makes a wonderful trip, especially during the summer. The lakes offer so many fun and exciting activities for all types of travelers. 

And the small towns that dot the shores of the lakes are unique. Have a little bit of fun and make a game by seeing how many lighthouses you can spot while visiting the Great Lakes region.

Are you surprised about who controls the Great Lakes? Tell us in the comments!

Discover the Best Free Camping Across the USA

To be honest with you, we hate paying for camping. There are so many free campsites in America (with complete privacy).

You should give it a try!

As a matter of fact, these free campsites are yours. Every time you pay federal taxes, you’re contributing to these lands.

Become a FREE CAMPING INSIDER and join the 100,000 campers that love to score the best site! 

We’ll send you the 50 Best Free Campsites in the USA (one per state). Access the list by submitting your email below: