Blue-Green Algae Threatens Lake Erie - NBC4: Columbus, Ohio News, Weather, and Sports (WCMH-TV)

Blue-Green Algae Threatens Lake Erie

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Lake Erie tourism generates $11.5 billion a year and a quarter of all tourism dollars in Ohio.

In 2011, toxic blue-green algae growth on Lake Erie forced families away from Erie's beaches and sport fishing charters. This year, experts predict a smaller algal bloom than in 2011, but it could still have a major impact of the region dependent on tourism dollars.

Several small business owners in the eight counties bordering Lake Erie NBC4 spoke with said almost all of their business comes from tourism.

"We get a variety of fishermen and their families people staying in the hotel so we rely 100 percent on tourism this time of year," said Kevin Lowe, who manages the 1812 Food and Spirits and a connected hotel in downtown Port Clinton. "When word gets out like that, it probably will stop people from coming up or it may put a damper on their vacation."

"They want to come to a clean, pristine lake. They do not want to come to a sewer," said charter boat Captain Paul Pacholski.

Pacholski has fished Lake Erie for 30 years. He said sport fishing generates nearly $1 billion a year.

"In 2011, I lost a lot of business. I had to cancel charters because the algae was so thick, people looked at that water and thought Lake Erie was dying again," he said.

"Back in the '80s and '90s there were 1,100 charter boat captains. Now we are down to 675," Pacholski said.

Both he and another boat captain said the down turn in the economy hurt those businesses, but so has the algal blooms in the lake.

Even though experts predict less blue-green algae, boat captains NBC4 spoke with said it is coming back this week with a vengeance. Captain of the Dr. Bugs Charter, Dave Spangler, said visitors he had on his boat said it was fine last year, what's the big deal.

"Well, it is not going to be fine this year. Within the past week we have had the blooms start," he said.

Spangler provided NBC4 with a boat ride several miles out into Lake Erie.

"The algae has not popped to the surface yet, but If you look at all of these particles suspended in the water here, that is blue-green algae," he said.

"If you are coming down for a quality experience, people look at that water with that type of algae, especially the really thick stuff and they wonder if those fish are suitable for human consumption," said Pacholski.

Captain Pacholski said the size of the fish and the growth rate on Walleye in Lake Erie is unparalleled. A 2-year-old fish could be 14 to 15 inches, where northern lake fish need four years for the same growth. He said the algae disrupts that growth because it causes dead zones with no oxygen in the deeper areas of the Central Basin, causing the fish to move to other parts of the lake.

Federal, state and local organizations like Waterkeepers said they are all working hard on the problem.

"What we want to do is create a program that reduces the phosphorus which reduces the green water which reduces the algae," said Sandy Bihn, president of an environmental group called Waterkeeper.

She also has a vested interest in the health of the lake, as her house backs up to Maumee Bay.

According to Waterkeeper facts, 11 million people drink water  pumped from Lake Erie, four million from Ohio.

"Water is becoming liquid gold," said Bihn. "This is the biggest bloom of this I have seen in probably five years," said Bihn as she shoved a pool-pole into the algae growth along her beach-front property.

She calls this kind of blue-green algae Lingua, different from from the Microcystis but she said it is still toxic.

"The good news is the Western Basin of Lake Erie turns around every 30 to 50 days, so if we reduce the inputs this problem can get cured," she said.

"It is sometimes commercial fertilizer that can be spread on frozen or snow covered which we are really trying to get away from, because that does cause a significant amount of phosphorus runoff," said Barbara Baker, Assistant State Conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

She said the NRCS is soil testing for farmers and encouraging them to apply fertilizer during the growing season not in the winter.

"From manure storage facilities to cover crops, no till and nutrient management systems to try and reduce the amount of phosphorus entering lake water," she said.

State groups like the Department of Natural Resources, Environmental Protection and the Department of Agriculture are also combating the algae growth by spending $2.45 million to help farmers implement best management practices on more than 400,000 acres of farmland  near Lake Erie. More monitoring stations on incoming rivers and tributaries. Plus legislation to track fertilizer use.

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