Algae mess of ’11 was wakeup call for Lake Erie

  • Lake-Erie-Runaway-Algae

    This Oct. 5, 2011, satellite photo from a NASA Web site shows algae blooms swirling on Lake Erie. which was the largest bloom on record. This year’s bloom is predicted to be much smaller.


  • Matt Markey.
    Matt Markey.

    PORT CLINTON — In the mind of every Lake Erie watcher, 2011 had better be the worst case scenario.

    A nightmare played out over several months in the summer and fall that year, as a gunky and potentially toxic bloom of algae enveloped Maumee Bay, the western basin, and the Lake Erie islands before expanding to cover almost 2,000 square miles of the lake with a green scum sometimes 4 inches thick.

    “It looked like a cesspool out there,” said Paul Pacholski, a Michigan-based charter boat captain with 30 years of experience on the lake. “There were days where I would run eight, 10 or 12 miles out, and I just could not run out of it.”

    The forecasting models do not indicate that the now developing 2013 bloom will be anywhere near that bad. Jeff Reutter, director of Ohio State University’s Stone Lab research facility at Put-in-Bay, expects the current bloom to max out at about 20 percent the size and scope of the 2011 bloom, which was the largest on record.

    This Oct. 5, 2011, satellite photo from a NASA Web site shows algae blooms swirling on Lake Erie.  which was the largest bloom on record. This year’s bloom  is predicted to be much smaller.
    This Oct. 5, 2011, satellite photo from a NASA Web site shows algae blooms swirling on Lake Erie. which was the largest bloom on record. This year’s bloom is predicted to be much smaller.

    “It will likely be twice as bad as 2012, and about the same as what we saw in 2003. That means that we are likely to see visible blooms that spread from the Maumee River and reach the island area at least occasionally this year,” he said. “The blooms in Maumee Bay and Sandusky Bay will be close to continuous.”

    Huge blooms of algae are triggered when excessive amounts of nutrients, such as phosphorus, are present in the system and combine with the warming lake water of late summer. Phosphorus is flushed into the lake via agricultural runoff of fertilizer and manure, the discharge from water and sewage treatment plants, and septic systems.

    While numerous species of algae are essential to the ecosystem of the lake, certain blue-green varieties produce toxins that can be extremely dangerous to humans and animals. Blue-green algae made up the majority of the monstrous 2011 bloom.

    “What we experienced in 2011 was like a thick, green sludge on top of the water out in the lake,” said Bob Brown, Jr., a charter captain and one of the owners of Channel Grove Marina located on East Harbor, near Lakeside. “For a while, people quit going to the beach because no one wanted to go in the water. We kept fishing, because further out in the lake it wasn’t as bad, but I think it definitely had an economic impact on everyone.”

    Pacholski said that earlier this week he encountered algae in Maumee Bay “so thick you could cut it with a knife.” There are no beach advisories in effect for the state park at this time, but in the past issues with blue-green algae have plagued the beaches at both Maumee Bay and East Harbor.

    Pacholski, who is part of a group of charter captains that periodically collect water samples to monitor the health of the lake, said the current algae bloom extends about four miles out into the lake, and from the bay east to the Crane Creek area.

    “Five miles out, the water is almost crystal clear, but what we saw around the Toledo water intake was horrible, and that’s right where we get our drinking water,” he said. The cost to municipalities to treat their water due to remove blue-green algae, also called cyanobacteria, can be substantial.

    “Even in 2011, it wasn’t that the fishing was so bad - we were still catching fish – but it was people’s perception,” Pacholski said. “They had to ask themselves if they wanted to eat fish that came from that water.”

    Charter captains got hit with a rash of canceled outings in 2011, and a significant spike in their fuel costs since they were making much longer runs to escape the worst of the algae. Brown said he often had to travel to Canadian waters on perch fishing trips that normally would use the near-shore areas much closer to his marina.

    Rick Unger, the president of the Lake Erie Charterboat Association, stressed that while this year’s algae problems will likely be minor compared to the disastrous impact of 2011, he hopes that the 2011 bloom continues to serve as a stern warning.

    “That one really hurt a lot of people, so we want to fix this problem so we never see anything like that again,” he said. “Charter fishing is a business, and some captains gave up. People don’t want to come to a beautiful place like Lake Erie, and then see that stuff. And I don’t blame them.”

    While the state, biologists from a number of universities, and a multitude of agencies and agricultural interests are at work on a long-term solution, Unger hopes the recent quirky weather patterns might serve up a bit of a reprieve.

    “These next 30 to 60 days will be critical, so of course I’m worried,” he said. “But the water is cooler — 72 degrees right now when it is usually in the 80s — so that could help slow it down. And there’s a bright spot in all of this, in that the governor is 100 percent supportive of the efforts to fight this algae problem, and a lot of good people are hard at work on it. It’s not all doom and gloom, for sure.”

    The lake figures heavily into some $11.5 billion in tourist revenue that Ohio's eight lakefront counties enjoy, and about 120,000 jobs are linked to that lake-related tourism.

    “I’m apprehensive as can be, because Lake Erie has fought very hard to repair its reputation.,” Pacholski said. “There’s a lot of people who remember the horror stories of the ’60s and ’70s, and we don’t ever want to see the lake go back there again.”

    FISHING REPORT: The ODNR reports that walleye fishing has been good around the Toledo water intake and West Sister Island, and west of North Bass Island. Trolling with worm harnesses or divers and spoons, or drifting and casting mayfly rigs or bottom bouncers has produced the most fish. Perch fishing was best around West Sister Island, southeast and east of Kellys Island, and on Kellys Island Shoal. Spreaders baited with shiner minnows and fished near the bottom are the most productive. Jann’s Netcraft reports great smallmouth bass fishing in area rivers and creeks, with the Buttonwood and Orleans Park areas on the Maumee River the best, plus the Rodger Young Park area in Fremont on the Sandusky. Fish are being caught in areas with deeper holes, using salty tube skirts rigged on tube jigs, and on small spinnerbaits.

    Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: or 419-724-6068.