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Great Lakes Article:

Lake Erie fish kill puzzles scientists

By Jennifer Caldwell
TORONTO STAR
07/28/2002

Dead fish littering the shores of Lake Erie are baffling experts.

For the third consecutive year, dead fish dot the beaches east of Port Dover to Port Colborne and although there are theories, nobody knows exactly what is causing the fish kills.

"It's amazing the scale of what's going on," said Phil Ryan, the manager for the Port Dover Ministry of Natural Resources station.

"It's a big research mystery."

While the ministry suspects it is the toxin created by type E botulism that is killing the fish, they don't know anything for a scientific fact.

"Hopefully it's temporary," Ryan said. "We're keeping our fingers crossed."

The ministry also suspects that exotic zebra mussels and gobies are involved, but they aren't certain how they factor in exactly. "We only have circumstantial evidence," Ryan said.

Jeff Robinson, a biologist with Environment Canada, said the whole situation is "really puzzling."

Robinson said he shares the ministry's theory and believes that botulism is a side-effect from the introduction of species like zebra mussels into Lake Erie.

"This whole episode of exotic species (zebra mussels and gobies) coming in from the Caspian Sea has really turned the ecology of Lake Erie on its head," he said.

Robinson speculated that with the introduction of gobies and zebra mussels, bottom-feeding animals have taken over and become very effective in moving things around, including botulism.

"People are starting to do research with the idea that there might be something done to prevent this," he said.

Ryan said the ministry wants to make sure everybody knows to cook their fish.

"This is where we all step very carefully but people can die from botulism if they ingest the toxin," he said.

Health Canada is joining with Environment Canada and the Ministry of Natural Resources to research the levels of toxins in fish meat from Lake Erie.

"Right now, we haven't done that so we can't say what the risk is," said Dr. John Austin, the chair of the Botulism Reference Service for Canada.

Austin said botulism is a relatively new phenomenon in the Great Lakes.

The Haldimand Health Unit is not aware of the potential outbreak, according to spokesperson Glen Steen.

"We have not been officially notified by anyone," he said. "We are not aware of any fish kill."

John Cooper, spokesperson for the Ministry of Natural Resources, said: "Type E has caused illness and death in other areas of Canada. We may be having an outbreak of botulism, but we don't have anything to confirm it."
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