MARBLEHEAD, Ohio — For five hours on Saturday, the tables were turned. Adrift in western Lake Erie with nothing but water around him, the politician became the captive audience.
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) was aboard “Erie Hopper” with a small party led by veteran charter Capt. Paul Pacholski for a morning outing focused on walleye and the pressing issues facing the lake. There was a generous mixture of fishing, and serious talk.
“He let us do the talking, and he was a very good listener,” said Pacholski. “The senator was really up to date on the issues, and that made for a very productive time. We caught some fish, and we talked a lot about protecting this lake.”
When the group returned to Channel Grove Marina in Marblehead about noon, the sun was bright, the weather was comfortably cool, and the lake had produced a decent “walleye chop” for drift fishing.
“We had a beautiful day out there, and we got to see Lake Erie at its best, but also I got a lot of input,” Senator Portman said.
What Senator Portman heard from Pacholski, a respected voice on environmental issues among the Lake Erie charter captains, was an impassioned testimonial on how huge blooms of algae and the threat of the invasive Asian carp are poised to cause irreparable damage to the lake and the associated robust economy along Ohio’s Erie shoreline.
“That is a concern [algae], just as the carp is, for a $6 billion or $7 billion fishing industry in Lake Erie and the Great Lakes,” Senator Portman said. “It’s also an issue for tourism, because as a destination, this area is really starting to pick up. When people hear there is an algae bloom ... it turns people away. This is a huge issue for tourism and for recreational and commercial fishing.”
Senator Portman cited a bill he co-sponsored with fellow Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich) to push the Army Corps of Engineers to speed up a study on measures to prevent the carp from reaching the Great Lakes, where they could create an ecological catastrophe. He also urged that multiple potential entry pathways into the lakes be studied.
“They were focused a lot on Chicago, and they weren’t looking as much at some of the tributaries,” he said. “The Maumee [River] is one for instance, and the Sandusky and others, where we think unfortunately there is some pretty good habitat for these carp and pretty good spawning grounds, if they do end up getting into the lake.”
Chicago is the site of a manmade link between the Mississippi River watershed and the Great Lakes, via a canal that was originally intended to carry partially treated sewage downstream and away from Chicago’s municipal water source in Lake Michigan.
Asian carp, which were brought to the United States in the 1970s to control algae in catfish farming operations and wastewater treatment plants in Arkansas, escaped into nearby rivers decades ago and are now prevalent in large sections of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers.
The Army Corps of Engineers has placed electric barriers in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal downstream from Lake Michigan in an attempt to stop the marauding Asian carp from reaching the Great Lakes. The biggest threat is posed by bighead and silver carp, which feed on phytoplankton and devour the primary food for young native fish. Voracious eaters and prolific breeders, these invasive fish can grow to 100 pounds and four feet long.
If the carp reach the Great Lakes, research has indicated they would most likely have the greatest destructive impact on the warm, shallow and nutrient-rich western Lake Erie and Maumee Bay. Senator Portman said he hopes the Corps will complete its study and have a recommended plan of action to deal with the Asian carp threat by the end of the year.
“We are pushing them, talking to them a lot ... because we want to hear what the answers are — and what is the most effective way to deal with the issue,” he said.
Senator Portman said the Chicago canal remains the primary flash point, because it is a direct link between the two watersheds. Because the canal is also used for barge traffic, there are significant political and economic forces resisting its closure, but he remains optimistic that a permanent resolution is possible.
“There has been some movement there to try to actually cut off the Chicago waterways from the lake, which I think is ultimately going to be the solution,” he said.
“I don’t want to prejudge their study, but I think that’s ultimately going to be the solution. It is a difficult issue for some people from a commercial basis, but I don’t think the electric fence is trustworthy, and as you know when they’ve had power outages and the generators haven’t worked, so we don’t even know what’s gotten through.”
Senator Portman also discussed the on-going conversation with the agricultural community to address the excess fertilizer and manure that reach the lake and provide the phosphorus to charge up the algae blooms that sometimes force the closure of popular beaches. He said an effort is underway to get algae issues associated with freshwater lakes included in a bill that is focused on salt water algae problems.
“There is an education process that has to go on,” Senator Portman said about bringing colleagues on-board. “We have convinced them that there is also a big problem here in the freshwater lakes, including the Great Lakes.”
Pacholski said he considered it a very productive outing, with fish in the box and the senator constantly taking notes on the critical issues facing Lake Erie.
“After spending that time with him, I was charged up,” Pacholski said. “It’s reassuring to know that these issues are being actively addressed at the highest levels.”
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.