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Great Lakes Article:

Erie worst in state-of-lakes update
John C. Kuehner
Plain Dealer
Posted 10/28/2002

Lake Erie's health remains mixed. While it has shown improvement, there are signs of deterioration.

Daniel O'Riordan, a Lake Erie specialist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, presented the state-of-the-lake update at a Great Lakes environmental conference in Cleveland yesterday.

Lake Erie had the worst health grade of all the Great Lakes. It got the same grade last year.

"A lot of good things have been done, but we're not sure why we're seeing the trends we're seeing," O'Riordan said afterward. "The perplexing part is that it's not a failure of what we did in the past, but an indication of how complex the lake is."

What has researchers concerned is the recent discovery of an oxygen-poor "dead zone" in Lake Erie, which prompted a two-year EPA-funded study that started this year.

Other issues include habitat loss and the unprecedented deaths of thousands of fish-eating birds from avian botulism, O'Riordan said.

Those are setbacks, agreed Jeffrey Busch, who heads the Ohio Lake Erie Commission. But since the 1960s, Lake Erie has undergone dramatic improvements.

"Sometimes at these conferences we dwell on the new problem. Some of these things we could not have even detected years ago," Busch said. "We've got these new problems, and they warrant investigation and are serious. But in the big picture, we have made improvements and we plan improvements in the future."

Lake Erie is the shallowest and most biologically productive Great Lake. So it's an indicator lake: Problems show up here before other Great Lakes, O'Riordan said.

The lake also has 34 nonnative fish species. These invaders compete with native fish for food, and are altering the lake's food chain and natural habitat at the expense of the native fish, O'Riordan said.

Nonnative species such as the round goby also could carry diseases, such as avian botulism. O'Riordan said that one study showed that birds in Lake Erie that died of botulism had a high number of round gobies in their stomachs compared with uninfected birds.

To improve Lake Erie's health, O'Riordan suggested these steps: Minimize and control nonnative species; protect and restore habitats; manage nutrients; and do more research.

"Time is of the essence to prevent additional biological degradation," O'Riordan said.

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