Toxic algae is muscling into region
Zebra mussels make water more attractive to algae that
can foul lakes
By Bob Downing
Akron Beacon Journal
Published August 9th, 2004
First came the mussels -- unwanted visitors to the Great
Lakes in the late '80s that clog boat motors, cut the
feet of swimmers, promote weed growth and work their way
into inland lakes.
Now is there growing evidence of another danger: Those
zebra and quagga mussels may be linked to outbreaks of
dangerous toxin-producing algae on Lake Erie.
And the threat isn't just to Lake Erie.
Also at risk are the Portage Lakes, Berlin Reservoir
on the Stark-Portage-Mahoning county line and Michael
J. Kirwan Reservoir in eastern Portage County.
``It is a major concern,'' said Jeffrey Reutter, a Lake
Erie expert at Ohio State University.
It's impossible to predict when or if the threatening
blue-green algae will appear in inland lakes, but that
is a definite possibility, he said.
Scientists are keeping a close eye on the blue-green
algae -- the strain is known as microcystis -- and working
to better understand the link between the nonnative mussels
that invaded Lake Erie in 1988 and the return of the toxic
It appears that the mussels release phosphorus, which
triggers the algae blooms. Moreover, the mussels eat algae
that would compete with the blue-green algae, Reutter
The toxin-producing blue-green algae were common in Lake
Erie in the 1970s and 1980s before the United States and
Canada cut releases of phosphorus. That happened after
sewage plants were improved and farm fertilizer runoff
Then came the mussels. Zebra mussels initially took over
western Lake Erie. The quagga mussel has found a home
in the deeper eastern parts of the lake.
Then, in 1996, the phosphorus levels again began to climb.
And the toxin-producing algae began to reappear.
The inedible blue-green algae are harmful to humans and
deadly to fish and animals that might drink their toxin.
The toxin can cause vomiting, diarrhea and hepatitis-like
symptoms including intestinal cramps and liver problems.
Although experts say one would have to consume large
volumes of the toxin before it would be a threat, there
isone confirmed American death from blue-green algae.
A 17-year-old Wisconsin youth died in 2002 after swimming
in a scum-covered pond. He went into shock and suffered
a seizure before his heart failed.
In 1996, 75 people died in Brazil from the blue-green
The algae are starting to bloom in Maumee Bay, Sandusky
Bay and near Put-in-Bay in Lake Erie and they're blooming
earlier this year, a troubling sign, Reutter said.
They are likely to drift with the currents eastward.
The algae can create taste and odor problems with drinking
water. Water systems will need charcoal filter systems
to remove the algae, he said.
Lake Erie provides drinking water to 11 million people,
including 3 million Ohioans.
Blue-green algae have also been found in numerous Michigan
inland lakes filled with zebra mussels. Those lakes have
more blue-green algae and more toxin than lakes with no
mussels, reported Michigan State University researchers.
Ohio is not overly worried about the potential spread
to inland lakes, said Joe Mion of the Ohio Department
of Natural Resources.
That's because Ohio's inland lakes are significantly
different from Michigan's lakes with more water flushing
through Ohio's lakes, he said.
Mussels move inland
Zebra mussels were found in 1995 in East Reservoir and
probably arrived while attached to a boat that had been
on Lake Erie.
The mussels have also been found in Northeast Ohio at
Hinckley Lake in Medina County, Mosquito Creek Reservoir
in Trumbull County, the Grand and Chagrin rivers in Lake
County, Wellington Reservoir in Lorain County and Shadow
and Wallace lakes in Cuyahoga County.
The biggest problem resulting from the mussels in the
Portage Lakes is the growth of underwater weeds.
The aquatic weeds -- actually Eurasian water milfoil
-- are booming because the water is clearer thanks to
Homeowners can spray to kill the annoying weeds, hire
contractors who charge about $150 for weed removal or
harvest the weeds themselves with a piece of weighted-down
wire-mesh fencing that is dragged along the lake bottom.
There are no easy solutions to dealing with the mussels
in the Portage Lakes, said Brian Andrews, manager of the
Portage Lakes State Park.
``They're here to stay and the numbers appear to be leveling
off,'' he said. ``But they're not going away.''
Not everyone is ready to declare mussel war.
``People are learning to live with them,'' said Tom Leighton
of Leighton's Boat House Inc. with two locations. ``They're
a nuisance but nothing you can't work around.... Zebra
mussels are not a monster problem.''
There are no reports of the mussels' causing major problems
on the dams and water-flow devices on the Portage Lakes,
said Ron Gray of the Ohio Division of Water.
The mussels are helping the big red-eared sunfish in
East Reservoir prosper.
That fish can crunch up zebra mussels with its sharp
teeth and eat them, unlike most other fish species, Gray
``We're starting to think the zebra mussel might not
be a serious problem,'' said Phil Hillman of the Ohio
Division of Wildlife.
The mussels also have been found in Michael J. Kirwan
Reservoir east of Ravenna at West Branch State Park.
The infestation on the 2,650-acre lake has been called
severe by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is likely
to have an impact of the lake's ecology, so that is being
watched, said spokesman Mike Fowles in the Corps' Pittsburgh
The mussels, first found in the lake in 1994, have encrusted
rocks and solid surfaces but have not created operational
problems, he said. ``That's surprising,... but a big problem
has never materialized,'' he said.
Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or email@example.com