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Great Lakes Article:

Great Lakes: Botulism deadly to wildlife perils Lake Erie



By Matthew Daneman
Democrat and Chronicle

Posted: 09/01/002) — Parts of Lake Erie are a wildlife charnel house.

Fish and bird corpses by the thousands have been bobbing in the shallows of the lake's east end and washing ashore since 1999.

The killer is a poison, called type E avian botulism. And its next victim, many predict, is Lake Ontario.

"As Lake Erie goes, so goes the Niagara River, goes Lake Ontario, the Barge Canal and the Finger Lakes," said state Assemblyman Richard Smith, D-Hamburg, Erie County. "That's why we're very concerned."

In February, Smith put together a joint workshop of several dozen U.S. and Canadian experts to discuss the outbreaks of type E botulism that have killed swarms of wildlife from Ontario, Canada, through New York and into Pennsylvania.

New York Sea Grant found traces of type E botulism in Lake Ontario last month. And it is poised to become a bigger problem in the Great Lake, perhaps as early as this fall, according to some researchers.

More cases are likely as a fish, the round goby, makes its way east to Lake Ontario and helps recreate the tangled web of circumstances thought responsible for Lake Erie's botulism problems, said Bill Culligan, head of the state Department of Environmental Conservation's Lake Erie fisheries research station.

U.S Rep. Thomas Reynolds, R-East Amherst, Erie County, has asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for federal assistance to halt the spread of type E.

Botulism is a poison made by clostridium botulinum, a bacterium that naturally lives in the lake.

That same bacterium makes types A and B botulism, the kinds associated with eating improperly canned food. Botox, the plastic surgery fad that smoothes out wrinkles by partially paralyzing facial nerves, comes from purified type A.

Under the proper environmental conditions on the lake -- including favorable temperatures and a lack of oxygen -- the bacteria will churn out this particular toxin, type E.

Now researchers are trying to figure out, among numerous other mysteries of the outbreak, what led to this lack of oxygen, Culligan said.

They also are trying to piece together how that toxin has ended up in the stomachs of the thousands of dead birds, such as gulls, loons, mergansers and cormorants; fish, such as the sheepshead, smallmouth bass and rock bass; and salamanderlike mudpuppies. Last fall, an estimated 6,500 water birds died from the botulism outbreak in New York state's stretch of Lake Erie.

The current theory has to do with zebra mussels loading up on type E botulism as they filter the lake water; gobies eating scores of the zebra mussels and thus filling up on type E; and the other fish and fowl eating the gobies, said Webster Pearsall, a senior aquatic biologist with the DEC's Region 8 office in Avon.

"We're getting a lot of circumstantial evidence that's pointing to zebra mussels and ... the goby," Culligan said.

Current research efforts include the DEC testing zebra mussels for type E botulism. Cornell University's veterinary school and State University College at Fredonia also are doing research on Lake Erie fish and on zebra mussels, all with the goal of trying to pin down the type E botulism/zebra mussel/goby connection.

Researchers in the Great Lakes states also are starting to coordinate their efforts, Smith said. "We've got West Nile virus, we've got anthrax -- we're short on research people right now."

There have been cases of people dying from type E botulism, though none in New York related to the Lake Erie outbreak, Culligan said.

Nor have there been any reports of pets in the region getting sick from the toxin. Swimming in areas where botulism-tainted wildlife has been found does not pose a threat, according to Sea Grant.

Intense heat can break down the poison, though normal cooking may not be long enough or hot enough, Culligan said. The state is advising people not to eat fish or birds that seem sick or are dead.

"It seems common sense that careful health handling will eliminate most of the threat," Culligan said.

In past decades, lakes Michigan and Huron also saw type E outbreaks, though they were smaller and died out after a time.

Jim Hanley hopes that that same end is coming to Lake Erie's woes. The Erie County resident, who hosts a pair of weekly fishing shows on Empire Sports Network, said that in recent weeks of fishing, the amount of dead fish he sees is "one one-hundredth" of what it was earlier in the summer.

"Hopefully this phase is over with. Maybe it's run its course."

Meanwhile, local fishermen are hoping it never starts its course here.

Tim Simmons, 54, of Rochester, hits the banks of Buck Pond in Greece as many as five days a week, angling for bass, pike, crappie and sunfish. Steve Besse, 32, of Greece, is often there every day. "It's a great place to bring your kids," Besse said a week ago as he and Simmons cast into the creek. "I bring my kids here three, four days a week."

The two already are used to being cautious with what they catch out of the creek and adjacent Lake Ontario. Neither eat what they land but instead catch fish and release them. Fishing is not about what they take home, both said.

"It's a sport to me," Simmons said. "I come to relax."
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