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Published: Thursday, 10/6/2011

Job-killing algae

This summer's record-setting algae in western Lake Erie was a public-health threat, gave off noxious odors, drove up tap water costs, drove down property values, and scared away tourists. Worse, according to a new report, it also worked in tandem with zebra mussels and quagga mussels to devastate the food web that supports the region's $7 billion fishery and cost Ohio at least 100 charter boat fishing jobs.

The findings, in a National Wildlife Federation report and in testimony delivered this week to a U.S. Senate subcommittee, underscore the need to curb fertilizer runoff and sewage overflows into the Great Lakes. Toxic algae, which has bloomed annually since 1995, has been condoned far too long. It is now taking an economic and environmental toll on the region in measurable ways.

According to testimony before a Senate subcommittee by Andy Buchsbaum, regional executive director of the wildlife federation's Great Lakes office, miles of Lake Erie beaches have closed or had health advisories posted on them because of algae. Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay fared the worst. Algae there exacerbated biological differences between near-shore and offshore water so much that Lake Huron is out of balance.

Frank Krist, chairman of a Michigan Department of Natural Resources' citizens advisory committee, told reporters that Lake Huron fish now are smaller and less prevalent because algae has robbed oxygen from near-shore water, forcing quagga mussels to deeper offshore areas where the mussels have out-competed many of the fish for tiny organisms and microscopic food in the water column.

Rick Unger, Lake Erie Charter Boat Association president, noted a huge one-year drop in Ohio charter boat captains, from 800 in 2010 to 700 this year. The figure does not include employees who worked for them.

The sight and smell of algae turn away many charter boat customers. Higher fuel costs to get away from the gunk cut further into the boat operators' profit margins.

"Once people have been out in the algae they don't want to go back," Mr. Unger said. "Unless things change, more people will be out of business."

That's the point. It's high time for change, especially along waterfront farms, lawns, and other property.

The U.S. and Canadian governments should adopt site-specific limits on nutrient loads as they modernize their framework for shared management through the landmark Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which turns 40 in 2012. State and federal officials must provide leadership to curb runoff and sewage overflows within their jurisdictions, as well.

The Senate subcommittee is gathering information about an algae epidemic that has gone global. In water-stressed parts of the world such as China, algae contamination has impacted the fundamental human right to fresh water.

Algae has proven to be a public-health threat, an environmental nuisance, a tax liability, and an impediment to water-based tourism and recreation. There is enough reason to act now.



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