The Science of Sustainability

Battling the Bloom: Lake Erie

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“Battling the Bloom” was produced by QUEST Ohio’s Mary Fecteau.

Millions of people depend on Lake Erie for drinking water. Many others rely on it for commerce and recreation. The lake also provides critical habitat for fish and wildlife. Toxic algae blooms are now putting all of this at risk.  In this QUEST video we set out to investigate the problem and talk to researchers and others looking for the cause on Ohio’s farm fields.

Videographer Milan Jovanovic takes in the expanse of lake and islands visible from Perry’s Lookout. Credit: Jean O’Malley

Videographer Milan Jovanovic takes in the expanse of lake and islands visible from Perry’s Lookout.

In shooting “Battling the Bloom,” our team traveled to South Bass Island, a hidden gem just off the north shore of Ohio in the western basin of Lake Erie. There are dozens of islands like this in Erie, left behind by the last glacier that scraped out the Great Lakes. Some of Lake Erie’s islands are populated year round by a small number of residents, but the numbers swell in the summer as more than a million visitors head for fun in the sun.

 

Dr. Jeff Reutter has been researching harmful algal blooms on Lake Erie since 1971. Credit: Jean O’Malley

Dr. Jeff Reutter has been researching harmful algal blooms on Lake Erie since 1971.

We were on the island to visit Dr. Jeff Reutter, who runs Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory research center there. Established in 1895, Stone Lab is the oldest freshwater biological lab in the country. Reutter has been working on Lake Erie since 1971.

Harmful algal blooms, or HABs, are caused by too many nutrients getting into the lake. When those extra nutrients combine with warm water in the lake’s shallow end at the end of summer, the result is an algal bloom that is toxic to humans and animals and can cause fish-killing conditions — dead zones — at the bottom of the lake. In the 1970s and ’80s, HABs were caused by excess sewage going into the lake. Today, sewage overflow still can cause HABs, but the primary culprit is nutrient runoff in the form of fertilizer and animal waste from farms in the Lake Erie watershed.

You can see Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial from almost anywhere in the Lake Erie Islands. This view is from Stone Lab’s dock on South Bass. Credit: Jean O’Malley

You can see Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial from almost anywhere in the Lake Erie Islands. This view is from Stone Lab’s dock on South Bass.

The Miller Ferry docked at the south end of South Bass Island and we headed up the narrow island to its main attraction, the town of Put in Bay. Put in Bay is the harbor as well as the island’s social and entertainment center. You can’t miss Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, which soars more than 350 feet over Lake Erie. The giant Doric column celebrates Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory during the Battle of Lake Erie in September 1813 and the resulting peace among the U.S., Britain, and Canada.

Dr. Jeff Reutter tells us all about harmful algal blooms on Lake Erie in front of Stone Lab on South Bass Island. Credit: Jean O’Malley

Dr. Jeff Reutter tells us all about harmful algal blooms on Lake Erie in front of Stone Lab on South Bass Island.

Our camera crew set up shop at Stone Lab and interviewed Reutter at the water’s edge as boats and kayaks floated by in the distance and stable flies bit our ankles. We then boarded a Stone Lab research boat for a lunchtime excursion to Gibraltar Island, a smaller island just offshore in the harbor. Ohio State University owns Gibraltar Island, where it has another lab facility. Students live, study, and conduct research here during the summer. The island provides great views of the lake and many of the neighboring islands, especially from the stone cliffs of Perry’s Lookout on Gibraltar’s northeast corner. The lookout is named for Commodore Perry, who is said to have watched for British ships from here before the historic battle. Perry is a legend in northern Ohio — there is even a beer named for him at Cleveland’s Great Lakes Brewery.

By August 19, 2013, harmful algal blooms had begun growing in the western end of Lake Erie. This is the marina at Maumee Bay State Park. Credit: Jean O’Malley

By August 19, 2013, harmful algal blooms had begun growing in the western end of Lake Erie. This is the marina at Maumee Bay State Park.

Schedule constraints meant we had to film this story in the spring, so we were unable to capture any footage of the harmful algal blooms that typically peak in late summer. Fortunately, we were able to include footage from Erie’s 2011 algal bloom, one of the worst in recent history. NOAA forecasters predicted that the 2013 bloom would be twice as bad as that in 2012 but not nearly as bad as 2011.  Data are still coming in for the actual algal counts in 2013.

As we returned to the dock at Put in Bay, a bald eagle swooped over the harbor. The majestic bird served as a reminder that the lake is so much more than a lovely summer tourist destination. Lake Erie and its shores are home to an amazing diversity of wildlife all year, including some species that are struggling — or have had to struggle — to survive. Today, a cleaner lake teeming with fish and an actively protected habitat have turned Lake Erie’s  islands into a prime area for spotting bald eagles, a species that nearly disappeared several decades ago.

In 2011, the Lake Erie watersnake, found only in the western basin of Lake Erie, was removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered wildlife, thanks in part to active education efforts and protection of the islands’ shores where it makes its home. As an added bonus, the snakes have developed an appetite for an invasive fish called the round goby, helping to minimize the impacts of this non-native species on the lake’s ecosystem.

The Lake’s islands provide critical habitat for shorebirds, a major rest stop for migrating birds, a heavenly launch for fisherman, and a reminder that we need to continuously work to protect these important natural areas from the damage wrought by human activities.

Additional Links

Explore the Lake Erie Islands: A Guide to Nature and History along the Lake Erie Coastal Trail

Lake Erie Shores and Islands

Ohio Sea Grant

NOAA’s Harmful Algal Blooms in Lake Erie Weekly Bulletin

NPR: Remembering a “Brave,” “Lucky” Hero in the War of 1812 (Re-enactment on Lake Erie)

 

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Category: Biodiversity, Biology, Environment, Television, Video, Water

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Jean O'Malley

About the Author ()

Jean O’Malley is the producer of NewsDepth, an award-winning weekly news program viewed by thousands of Ohio students each year in grades three to eight. This series is now in its 42nd year of broadcast at WVIZ/PBS ideastream. Jean has a B.A. from Carnegie Mellon University.