U.S. Water News Online
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Lake Erie has a dead zone and it is
growing. Massive amounts of research are needed to solve the puzzle
and, hopefully, find a cure.
State and federal budgets won't allow it. Ohio's budget has
already been cut to the bone and federal funds for Lake Erie research
will be extremely difficult to get, according to U.S. Sen. George
Voinovich held a hearing to spotlight the growing concern that
increased levels of phosphorous in Lake Erie is robbing the Central
Basin of oxygen. Without enough oxygen in the cold bottom water, the
steelhead trout, sturgeon and whitefish that prefer those waters must
simply find another place to swim.
Researchers have documented the problem and all agree it is likely
the dead zone will increase in size. Some have come up with a
hypothesis for the rising levels of phosphorous, which triggers the
To thoroughly study the problem the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency will fund a team of 27 researchers from 18 institutions this
summer. The EPA's research vessel Lake Guardian will prowl Central
Lake Erie this month, and another week in the fall.
More needs to be done to protect one of the world's finest
freshwater fisheries. Funding for Lake Erie research must be found
and the door slammed shut on the invasion of exotic species.
Ohio Sea Grant Extension has long been at the forefront of Lake
Erie research, despite its low level of funding. A part of the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Ohio Sea Grant gets
just $1 million from NOAA. Ohio contributes another $300,000.
Director Jeffrey Reutter and Ohio Sea Grant agents have managed to
keep abreast of Lake Erie and its problems and work with other
researchers to examine the wonderful fishery.
"There are so many things occurring on Lake Erie and they are
happening so rapidly," said Reutter. "We may put all of the facts we
have gathered together and come up with a hypothesis for the dead
zone, but we must get out and do the research."
The problem could be the proliferation of quagga mussels, global
warming or simply an inability to correctly estimate the flow of
phosphorous into Lake Erie from sewage treatment plants and
agricultural fields, said Reutter.
"We have to do the tests and do them over long periods of time,"
he said. "We have come up with a hypothesis before and we have been
Most at the hearing were surprised to discover that quagga mussels
were now far more numerous than their cousins, the zebra mussels.
Both are exotic species from Europe and filter-feed from Lake Erie's
waters. Both spew phosphorous as waste but quagga mussels release
more of it.
Zebra mussels are still prolific, covering every rock reef along
the bottom of Lake Erie. Nine years ago, zebra mussels outnumbered
quagga mussels 100-to-1. In Western Lake Erie test sites there are
now 10 times more quagga mussels than zebra mussels.
Zebra mussels are bad for Lake Erie, despite that their
filter-feeding has cleared once-dingy waters. Quagga mussels have
been deemed worse. And the next little mussel -- there are three
species that have yet to arrive in the Great Lakes -- may be even
Exotic species that have arrived in recent years also include the
round and tubenose gobies, the ruffe and spiny and fish hook fleas.
All made the trip to America in the ballast water of ocean
"Not very much prevents new and different exotic species from
coming to Lake Erie," said Reutter. "The ballast water regulations
have been tightened, but we are still very concerned with vessels
that declare they have no ballast on board."
Those ships carry some ballast and it can be discharged into the
"No one has any treatment [of ballast water] that is 100 percent
effective," said Reutter. "We must totally eliminate discharges or in
some way purify the discharge. If they say it is 99 percent effective
that means that something is going to be missed."
The U.S. EPA funding to research Lake Erie's dead zone this summer
is not guaranteed for next year, and none of the researchers are
going to be comfortable with one year of study. It was unusual for
the agency to pull together the funding to get the Lake Erie project
going so quickly, but researchers must be assured they will be able
to continue their work.
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