Lake Erie’s algae carries big-picture fiscal threat

Leaders try to finesse how info is conveyed

A sign alerts swimmers to algae dangers at Maumee Bay State Park. Frequently changing lake conditions complicate the message.
A sign alerts swimmers to algae dangers at Maumee Bay State Park. Frequently changing lake conditions complicate the message.

GIBRALTAR ISLAND, Ohio — Like the shark-infested water in the fictional 1975 thriller Jaws, Lake Erie has a killer that threatens to cripple recreation and tourism.

It’s a toxic form of blue-green algae known as microcystis.

Algae, of course, is not as graphic or intimidating as sharks. But those large pea-green mats that cover much of western Lake Erie each summer are a menace in their own right.

Many people don’t take the goopy stuff seriously enough, dismissing it as some cartoonish joke or freakish villain in an old Grade B sci-fi movie, such as The Blob.

Others are in such a panic over it, they needlessly avoid some of Ohio’s best public beaches and world-class fishing opportunities.

Jeff Reutter, director of Ohio Sea Grant and Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island, said telling the story of Lake Erie’s scum is one of those things in nature that requires a lot of finesse.

Eighteen years after large swaths of microcystis began to reappear annually in the lake each summer, officials are still trying to find the sweet spot of communications so they can better explain what is a legitimate threat to public health and what needlessly alarms people.

Melinda Huntley, executive director of the Ohio Travel Association, said stories about Lake Erie’s algae have been known to scare away tourists as far east as Conneaut, Ohio.

Conneaut, at the Pennsylvania border, lies adjacent to Lake Erie’s coldest and deepest waters. It’s in an area far removed from western Lake Erie’s algae problem and one highly unlikely to play host to a significant algae outbreak.

But, as Ms. Huntley notes: “In the tourism industry, perception is reality.”

Lake Erie algae typically blooms in warm, shallow, and nutrient-rich water near Toledo in mid to late-summer, but that’s usually as far as it goes: the western basin.

Even in the summer of 2011, the worst algae outbreak in decades, it didn’t migrate much farther east than Cleveland.

Complicating the message is the fact that lake conditions change more frequently than a lot of people realize, often because of wind, temperature, and rain.

Ms. Huntley said she would like to see more site-specific reporting and more monitoring. But with stories passed across the Internet — with news staffs leaner and scientists scrambling for money to maintain the status quo on water-quality testing — she knows that is a tall order.

Lake Erie’s algae problem also has gotten more Internet exposure after stories about it appeared earlier this year in National Geographic and the New York Times.

Ms. Huntley said she fears 2013 will be a repeat of 2011 from a perception standpoint.

“Let’s be very specific on location — where it is occurring, but where it is not occurring too,” Ms. Huntley said.

At stake is $11.5 billion in tourist revenue that Ohio’s eight lakefront counties add to Ohio’s economy.

The state’s lake-based tourism also is described as the backbone of 117,000 full-time equivalent jobs, or 9.8 percent of the employment in those counties, and a collective $3 billion in wages.

Such jobs include ferry-line accountants, hotel clerks, cooks, cashiers, and Cedar Point ride operators.

Ohio fishermen have taken one of the biggest hits. Two years ago, the number of Lake Erie charter-boat captains fell from 800 to 700 — one of its most dramatic single-year drops — because of algae.

Many charter captains reported being devastated by higher fuel costs from extending their trips halfway to Canada or farther to get away from algae.

Algae’s stench and unpleasant sight were public-relations nightmares too: out-of-state visitors, many of them affluent businessmen, didn’t get the experience they sought as they held their noses and looked away.

Rick Unger, president of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association, said Cleveland has lost much business to algae, as have Toledo, Port Clinton, and Sandusky.

“There are customers who never come back,” he said. “Yeah, there is incredible economic impact.”

Paul Pacholski, the association’s vice president, has been outspoken in the past over government inaction on the issue. But he said he has seen an effort by the Kasich administration to improve communications about testing and an algae-reduction strategy.

The Kasich administration was criticized earlier this year, though, for submitting a budget which called for about a $285,000 funding cut for Stone Laboratory, the older of only two research laboratories on a Great Lakes island and one which is in the thick of the algae issue.

Scott Nally, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency director, characterized that as “an oversight” when speaking at a July 2 event at the lab. He acknowledged the money was restored by state legislators, but said it was at the Kasich administration’s request.

Microcystis has the same toxin that killed dozens of patients at a kidney dialysis center in Brazil years ago when it slipped through a malfunctioning water-treatment system.

It poses no major risk to tap water when treatment plants neutralize it with special carbon-activated filtration, which is required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency whenever trace amounts of it show up in the water.

People who come upon algae while visiting a beach or taking a boat ride have a natural defense mechanism: repulsion by its ugliness and foul odor.

But while algae offends humans, dogs have been known to become sick or die from lapping up algae-infested water.

Ohio, which didn’t even test Lake Erie for algae concentrations until 2010, has been lauded by groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, for trying harder to publicize it through Web sites and other means.

The latter includes colorful signs installed last year at 14 public beaches, including Maumee Bay State Park, that depict various forms and stages of toxic blue-green algae. It includes a QR code for beach-goers with smart phones to get more on-the-spot, up-to-the-minute information.

Contact Tom Henry at: or 419-724-6079.