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TORONTO (CP) - Scientists in Canada and the United States are keeping a close eye on Lake Ontario this summer as thousands of dead fish and birds continue to wash up on the shores of Lake Erie.

For the third consecutive year, fish and bird carcasses have littered beaches along Lake Erie on both sides of the border, leading researchers to believe a potentially deadly toxin, created by type E botulism, is to blame.

Jeff Robinson, a biologist with Environment Canada, says this epidemic appears to be travelling east and is poised to hit Lake Ontario by autumn - a serious threat to any wildlife that travels south for the winter via Lake Ontario.

"Botulism bacteria is becoming more mobile," Robinson said. "And there's really not a lot we can do."

During the past two weeks, dead birds have been found on the American side of Lake Ontario, worrying scientists who fear the situation is getting worse.

The suspected cause of the problem is botulism, a naturally occurring bacteria that arrived about 10 years ago when ships from the Caspian Sea introduced exotic species into the Great Lakes.

The exotic species, particularly the zebra mussel, brought the botulism, which effectively creates a dangerous toxin.

The theory scientists are probing is that the goby, a fish that dwells at the bottom of the lakes, is eating the zebra mussel and dying from the toxin. The toxin is suspected of effectively climbing the food chain to other fish, fish-eating birds, ducks and even a small number of eagles.

Tests conducted on some of the tens of thousands of fish and bird carcasses found in and around Lake Erie have shown evidence of toxic poisoning.

The toxins pose a potential health risk to people who could become seriously ill if they don't cook their fish thoroughly enough to eliminate any bacteria, said Bill Culligan, an aquatic supervisor at the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

"You can't get (sick) through a cut or a bite of an animal. You have to consume the toxin," he said.

"And don't be tempted to eat a fish you find on the shore."

Although Environment Canada says it's still OK to swim in the lake, the carcasses are a definite eyesore.

"It's gross," said Phil Ryan, manager of the Port Dover Ministry of Natural Resources fisheries station. "It can certainly be ugly."

Lake Erie also suffers from anoxia - or a lack of oxygen - as well as huge algae blooms, which worsen the aesthetics of the area altogether.

But despite the severity of the suspected botulism problem, scientists say they can only monitor the situation.

"We feel helpless," Ryan said. "There really isn't anything we can do."

In the meantime, scientists continue to research the area and urge people to report any sightings of excessive numbers of dead fish or birds.

"Our job is to provide information and advice," Ryan said. "And that's as much as we can do."

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