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Dead birds, fish litter Lake Erie beaches

Exotic species blamed as fish and birds fall victim to bacteria

By Monte Sonnenberg
TORSTAR NEWS SERVICE
Posted 09/09/2002

PORT RYERSE, Ont. Large numbers of fish and fish-eating waterfowl have been washing up dead on the north shore of Lake Erie this week as botulism bacteria make their way up the food chain through exotic species such as zebra mussels and goby fish.

Experts warn this unnatural "die-off," which has plagued Lake Erie since 1999, may soon be coming to Lake Ontario.

"There's a die-off out there like we've never seen before, and it's crossing a lot more species," said John Piggott, of the Long Point Bay Anglers Association.

The extent of the phenomenon is evident along the beach in Port Ryerse, between Port Dover and Turkey Point, where the shoreline is littered with carcasses of yellow perch, carp, bass, sheep's head, round goby, gulls and cormorants.

Cottager Garth Hagey says the beach would be unusable without regular cleanups. His parents have been collecting and burying nearly 100 fish and birds a day.

"It's just insane," he said.

Wildlife and health officials have so far been unable to pinpoint the cause. The toxin produced by type E botulism bacteria is usually found in the dead fish and birds. But how it's entering the food chain remains unclear.

The bacteria are common in the lake-bottom mud but normally lie there undisturbed, causing no harm.

Scientists suspect the arrival of zebra and quagga mussels 15 years ago, coupled with the recent arrival of the bottom-feeding round goby, has caused the release of the bacteria into the ecosystem. The bacteria come to the surface when the lake waters flip in an event known as a thermocline.

Conditions over Long Point Bay last week were ideal for a thermocline. Steady northerly winds pushed the warm layer of water on top south to the U.S. side. This allowed cool water from below to roll to the top, bringing with it type E botulism bacteria.

It's not known whether gobies are creating the conditions for its release or simply ingesting the toxin and poisoning other wildlife when eaten.

"There seems to be a link between these inversions in the near-shore areas and these botulism outbreaks we're seeing in summer," Robinson said.

If gobies prove to be the critical link, Robinson says, people around Lake Ontario should brace themselves for similar die-off events. Round gobies, native to Europe, are making their way into the neighbouring lake. Zebra and quagga mussels are already there.

Since the die-offs began in 1999, there have been no reports of humans falling ill. Previous die-offs in Lake Erie have lasted into December.

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