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Published: Wednesday, 8/18/2004

Mercury weighing heavily on lake lovers

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
'I'd hate to see Lake Erie go down the tubes,' says Gary Lowry, owner of Maumee Bait & Tackle, whose livelihood depends on the sportfishing industry in Ohio and Michigan. 'I'd hate to see Lake Erie go down the tubes,' says Gary Lowry, owner of Maumee Bait & Tackle, whose livelihood depends on the sportfishing industry in Ohio and Michigan.
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Gary Lowry has a vested interest in Lake Erie. As owner of Maumee Bait & Tackle, his livelihood depends on it.

But Ohio is currently the nation s No. 2 state in mercury emissions into the air behind only Texas, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency records. So as concerns about mercury settling on the Great Lakes have become a prominent issue, Mr. Lowry has found himself immersed in the topic.

He s joined others from young environmental activists to high-ranking public officials in at least eight Eastern states, plus California, New Mexico, and Wisconsin in calling for tighter air pollution controls on coal-fired power plants that emit mercury into the air.

Sportfishing is the backbone of Lake Erie s travel and tourism industry, he said during a conference call yesterday. We need to protect our beautiful lake areas for ourselves and our future generations to come.

In a follow-up interview with The Blade, he urged people to toss aside party politics and stop looking at the lakes as just a symbol of environmental activists. Lake Erie and its four sisters provide critical drinking water to millions as well as commercial and recreational boating and fishing opportunities.

As airborne mercury emissions settle on the lakes, they are absorbed by fish and enter humans through the food chain. Excessive mercury exposure can lead to brain and nervous system problems in humans, especially in children.

I d hate to see Lake Erie go down the tubes, Mr. Lowry said.

Last year was Lake Erie s best for spawning prized walleye and yellow perch since the mid-1980s, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

But fears are rising that airborne mercury is getting worse and polluting more fish, jeopardizing both public health and tourism.

State health departments have posted fish-consumption advisories for years throughout the Great Lakes region. There is little evidence, however, of commercial and recreational fishermen backing away from the lakes walleye, perch, and other fish save for catch limits.

Sportfishing contributes $1.2 billion a year to Ohio s economy and $1.1 billion to Michigan, according to the State Environmental Leadership Program, a nonprofit group in Madison, Wis., that represents more than 50 environmental organizations in several states.

But Mr. Lowry and others are asking what happens if mercury pollution gets worse and sportfishing declines a mere 5 percent?

Ohio would take a $61 million annual hit to its economy and Michigan would take a $56 million annual hit to its economy. Reduce sportfishing by 25 percent and the numbers are staggering: A $308 million loss annually for Ohio and a $280 million annual loss for Michigan, said Keith Reopelle, the Leadership Program coordinator.

The answer to the mercury problem is clearly not to fish less but to reduce mercury pollution at the source, he said.

Joining him and Mr. Lowry on the conference call were representatives of the Ohio Environmental Council, the Michigan Environmental Council, the Izaak Walton League s Midwest office in St. Paul, Minn., the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, and Don Holecek, director of the Michigan Travel, Tourism and Recreation Resource Center at Michigan State University, a program established in 1985 to research Michigan s tourism industry.

It could be said that Michigan s extensive tourism industry has grown on water resources, Mr. Holecek said. Among other things, Michigan ranks No. 1 in the nation for registered boating.

Coal-fired plants for years have been among the nation s largest collective sources of mercury. The U.S. EPA only recently announced plans to tighten air pollution controls on coal plants, but activists said they are frustrated that the Bush administration would give utilities until 2018 to phase in some of the requirements.

Contact Tom Henry at:thenry@theblade.comor 419-724-6079.



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