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Great Lakes Article:

Alien species named lakes’ top enemy
Tom Henry
Toledo Blade
10/22/2002


CLEVELAND - Lake Erie’s delicate biological health remains spotty at best, and there’s little doubt now that it won’t get much better until the massive problem with invasive species is tackled.

The intruders were ranked as the lake’s worst enemy in a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assessment here yesterday on the final day of the State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference, a biennial meeting of the minds among Great Lakes officials.

While researchers have studied the damaging effects of zebra mussels and other invasive species for years, a consensus seemed to have emerged that the problem is getting worse for each of the five Great Lakes.

"Time is of the essence to prevent additional biological degradation and to ensure that the biological integrity of Lake Erie and the St. Clair River and the Detroit River ecosystems improves," Dan O’Riordan, manager of the U.S. EPA’s Lake Erie team, said.

The agency’s assessment of Lake Erie remains unchanged from last year, when it was ranked as "mixed to mixed-deteriorating." That’s defined as a combination of good and bad regions, with anxiety that the lake’s overall health could start to backslide.

"We’re not slipping yet, but we’re not making the progress we want, either," Mr. O’Riordan said.

Invasive species were identified as Lake Erie’s top issue, followed by habitat loss, excessive nutrients, and a need to refine ways of collecting data.

Long-standing problems with industrial pollution - while still a concern - have been addressed enough with regulations at discharge points to encourage a shift in research focus, Mr. O’Riordan said.

Zebra mussels drive up industry costs by clogging water intakes and suffocating native freshwater clams. They are blamed for massive depletion of diporeia, a tiny shrimp that has been a source of food for fish.

They help algae grow by excreting phosphorus, a common fertilizer, into the water. They are believed to be at least partly responsible for the dead zone in Lake Erie’s central basin, although scientists said the verdict’s still out on the full cause.

Yet the impact goes way beyond zebra mussels.

Thousands of fish and birds have been found dead along Lake Erie shores the past four years, the victims of a botulism problem that appears to be growing because of a type of bacteria spread by round gobies, another invader. Most cases occurred near Buffalo, Mr. O’Riordan said.

Gobies became a target of the scientific community years ago, after it was learned they were providing a new passageway for toxic chemicals to get into the human food chain. Sportfish feed on gobies.

The latest focus has been on the Asian carp, which has invaded the Mississippi River and is feared to be entering the Great Lakes at Chicago. It’s a fish that grows to 50 pounds and has been known to leap out of the water as boats approach and strike people on board.

The ever-changing Great Lakes ecology has been in flux since vampire-like sea lampreys started entering Lake Ontario in the early 1800s and sucked the blood out of fish. Since the 1830s, 146 species - 83 types of plants and 63 fish and other creatures - have entered the system, often in the ballast water of ships.

The adjustment period never ends: It’s only now that officials claim they’re having some success restoring the valuable lake trout population that the lamprey virtually wiped out.

"You can never go back to what you had, and the change is irreversible," Rimi Kalinauskas, Environment Canada restorations program coordinator, said.

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