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Great Lakes Article:

Assembly muses over Great Lakes ecological quirks
Tom Henry
Toledo Blade
10/17/2002


CLEVELAND - Boaters attacked by leaping carp near Chicago. All kinds of other fish and aquatic bugs mysteriously vanishing near Cleveland.

Sound like a cheesy science-fiction flick?

No, just more horror stories in the making for dozens of U.S. and Canadian researchers as they try to anticipate how the ever-changing biological picture underneath the surface of the Great Lakes will continue to unfold.

The occasion is an international symposium the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Environment Canada have held on even-numbered years since 1994, called the State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference.

This yearís event, which began yesterday at the Cleveland Convention Center, gives the two nations a forum to pause and reflect on 30 years of cleanup efforts since former President Richard Nixon and former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau signed the landmark Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in April, 1972.

That year was a watershed for environmental regulation because Mr. Nixon - the president who created the U.S. EPA - also signed the domestic Clean Water Act.

That legislation, the basis for Americaís water pollution laws, was signed in October, 1972.

Few people deny the Great Lakes are slowly recovering, but the pace continues to frustrate officials as new issues emerge, old ones resurface, and money becomes tighter.

Take bighead Asian carp, a species of fish that has migrated north along the Mississippi River and into the Chicago River. Officials fear itís poised to enter Lake Michigan and spread across the Great Lakes, despite efforts to keep it out. At 40 to 50 pounds, itís a whopper of a fish. Itís sensitive to vibrations and has, at times, leapt out of water and thrust itself missile-like at boaters caught by surprise.

When itís not flying through the air, itís robbing native sport fish of their food and being an ecological pest, officials said.

The carp were brought to North America by some Arkansas hatcheries 20 years ago to eat algae, but escaped confinement in the early 1990s and have been making their way up the Mississippi since.

Though several reportedly were caught in Lake Erie two summers ago, officials believe any problem in that lake was miniscule compared to what could be on the horizon.

Asian carp could someday replace the zebra mussel as a biological pest symbol - a notorious feat, no doubt, considering that 146 types of unwelcome fish and plants from other continents have made their way into the Great Lakes since the 1830s, officials said.

Tom Skinner, administrator of the U.S. EPAís Midwest regional office and manager of that agencyís Great Lakes National Program Office, said the only possible benefit may be the carpís ability to shock people with its "cartoon quality," something which could open the eyes of laymen to the seriousness of invasive species.

"You can talk to people about zebra mussels until you are blue in the face, but carp jumping into boats could have a galvanizing effect," he said.

Then there is Lake Erieís mysterious dead zone, that area of dormant pockets in the lakeís central basin, from Sandusky to Erie, Pa., where fish and aquatic bugs no longer live because of a sudden loss of oxygen in the water.

Scientists spent a great deal of energy this summer trying to diagnose the problem. Gnawing at them is the question of whether the dead zone is a fluke - a temporary setback - or a symptom of a larger problem re-emerging.

"We take the Lake Erie dead zone issue rather personally. The agency has put a lot of work into improving Lake Erie," Mr. Skinner said.

John Mills, Environment Canadaís regional director general for Ontario, said he believes the primary goal Mr. Nixon and Mr. Trudeau set forth for the Great Lakes in 1972 was achieved by sewage plant improvements and better farming techniques that led to a dramatic reduction in phosphorus, a nutrient found in human waste and fertilizers.

Reducing phosphorus curbed Lake Erieís widespread algae problem, although small blooms of a potentially toxic variety known as microcystis have reappeared almost annually in warm, shallow areas since the mid-1990s.

Mr. Mills said the dead zone emerging in Lake Erieís central basin is troubling news to Canada, as well. "Itís really the extent and magnitude of it that raises eyebrows," he said.
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