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Lake Erie Algae: A Warning Shot

By James Donahue

A couple of years back when my late wife and I frequented a Northern Michigan restaurant that specialized in serving fish I was surprised to find that the menu listed “Lake Erie Perch.”
 
Having lived and worked on the lower lakes most of my life, I suggested to the waiter that it might be a good idea to remove the reference to Lake Erie as a promotion for perch. I noted that Erie ….the shallowest of the Great Lakes . . . was known for its pollution. I said I would not be interested in eating anything caught in that lake. Needless to say, the restaurant people were offended by what I said. We were served a very bad meal and never went back.

Obviously people living in an area bordering Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron, were either unaware or didn’t really care about what was happening to Lake Erie or any of the other lakes for that matter. Yet a business that depends on a fishing industry still at work on those lakes should be concerned.
 
Certainly the men who go out on the lakes every day in their small boats to catch the fish are concerned. They know the great schools of herring, bass, perch, walleye, whitefish, trout and salmon are not thriving as they once did. If the Michigan Department of Natural Resources wasn’t diligent in restocking the trout and salmon each season, they would probably not even exist.

Many of the fish are caught with lampreys, an eel-like parasite creature brought to the lakes on ship ballast, clinging to their sides. Then there is the leaping Asian carp, a large invasive fish that has been working its way up the Mississippi River and now threatens to enter Lake Michigan. If this carp gets in the lakes, we can expect it to consume all of the other breeds of fish now living in the lakes.

A few years ago, when the zebra mussels joined a long list in invasive species rising into the lakes on ship ballast, people on Lake Erie were actually happy about the way these bottom feeders were cleaning up their polluted lake. The mussels were sucking up everything in the lake and feeding on all the farm and factory chemicals that had been draining into the lake for years. There was actually hope that the fishing industry on Lake Erie might be revived.

We obviously did not learn over the years. The Great Lakes, one of the last great sources of fresh water left in the world have been getting more and more polluted. Researchers are warning people not to eat fish caught in certain industrial areas because their bodies are filled with chemical toxins like mercury that can have a harmful effect on the human body.

While we lived on Lake Superior, we dared to enjoy whitefish meals caught by the local fishermen in that lake. Sometimes the salmon and trout, which also could be bought at the fish market, had to be trucked from fisheries on Lake Michigan. We chose not to eat them.

Even in the last years we lived in the area, plans were in the works to open sulfer and ore mining operations with toxic runoff expected in Lake Superior. The Native Americans and local environmental groups fought the mines, but the political pressure was on, because of high unemployment and a call for new jobs and industry. So the concern about the fresh water was forgotten.
 
Now with a general warming of the planet, and consequently the lakes, green algae blooms have been getting more common. They are caused by algae feeding on phosphorus from agricultural, industrial and sewage treatment plant sludge.
 
Last week a massive algae bloom, which normally would have been floating somewhere in the center of Lake Erie, was blown by northerly winds right against the southern shoreline and right where the water intake pipes providing drinking water for the City of Toledo was located. Suddenly an estimated 500,000 people were told to not use the water coming from their taps. The local water system was not equipped to deal with the algae. 

The situation remained critical for two days until the wind shifted. In the meantime the National Guard was called in to transport bottled water to residents of the city and surrounding areas. Hospitals cancelled surgeries and sent surgical equipment out of the area to be sterilized.

This will not be an isolated incident. As the pollution on the lakes intensifies, we can expect it to happen again and again. The day will soon come when fresh drinking water will be in such short supply, we will all be paying dearly for every drop.

What fools are we.