News from Lake Erie isn’t great

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When unpleasant news about Lake Erie comes along, it gets my attention. Yes, I acknowledge my soft spot for that wonderful lake I know so well, having boated and fished and raised our kids there for 38 years. But this warmest and most productive of the five Great Lakes is threatened from two directions and calls for action are surely justified.

“The Administration can’t explain why we have waited since February for a report that cost taxpayers $6 million,” charged Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, whose district spans much of Lake Erie’s shoreline. “We should be aggressively pursuing action to prevent the spread of the Asian carp to the Great Lakes, yet the roadmap to getting there is sitting on a shelf somewhere in the Army Corps of Engineers.”

Kaptur’s reference is to the Brandon Road Lock and Dam study by the Corps. Frustrated with the delay, she has introduced a bipartisan bill with 38 cosponsors to force the study’s release and a determination of what actions will best protect all the Great Lakes and the $7 billion annual fishing impact. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., is also leading by introducing the “Stop Asian Carp Now Act.” Kaptur and Stabenow are respective co-chairs of the House and Senate Great Lakes Task Force.

The threat of Asian carp getting into the Great Lakes has been ongoing since these fish escaped from southern fish farms and subsequently devastated native fisheries up the Mississippi River. Moving north, they’ve made their way upstream and into Illinois waterways that lead to Lake Michigan near Chicago. They represent a serious economic and environmental threat to the Great Lakes because they’ve proven to be fast-growing, aggressive, adaptable and voracious eaters that will outcompete and devastate native fish species for food and habitat, as they have already done in the mid-section of the country.

Sadly, a commercial fisherman recently hauled in a live Asian carp from the Calumet River, which is only nine miles south of Lake Michigan. The alarming discovery of this 8-pound, 28-inch adult carp signals that the electric barriers put in place by the Corps to stop the carp’s march north may not be the answer. It now appears the large (up to 100 lbs.) feisty carp are capable of breaking through the network of electric barriers. Indeed, this is the second time a live Asian carp has been found beyond three electric barriers in the Sanitary and Ship Canal. The prior discovery of a bighead carp in Lake Calumet led to heated debates between Chicago-area business interests and officials in other Great Lakes states who tried unsuccessfully to litigate a forced the closure of shipping locks that separate Lake Michigan from inland waterways.

I can tell you that for many years I fished Lake Michigan for Coho salmon and steelhead trout; Lake Ontario for Chinook king salmon; and Lake Erie, the most productive of the Great Lakes, for its outstanding walleye, perch, small mouth bass, steelhead and more. Even the possibility that these fisheries could be unraveled should shake every angler — and every marine dealer in the Great Lakes region, where fully one third of the industry’s annual boat sales are located. This can’t be allowed to happen.

OH GREAT JOY! For Lake Erie, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has called this summer “special” because it will issue Harmful Algae Bulletins (HAB) in its official NOAA forecasts. July is the season when HABs typically start to form in Lake Erie. NOAA has begun delivering the forecasts in semi-weekly bulletins.

Can’t you hear it now? “Here’s today’s Lake Erie forecast. We’ll have clear sunny skies, calm seas … and oh yes, an abundance of algae as noted in our latest Harmful Algae Bulletin.” That should entice people to buy or use their boat.

Here’s a thought: Instead of a forecast, perhaps the state and federal government agencies should deal with the problem at its well-documented source — crop fields and livestock farms. The fact is, 85 percent of the pollution from animal manure and chemical fertilizers comes down the Maumee River into western Lake Erie, according to the Ohio State University and others.

On the state level, the current voluntary program that pretends to cut down over-applying manure and fertilization on the massive farms in western Ohio, southeast Michigan and northeast Indiana are obviously not working. Voluntary should be out; serious regulatory action and strict verification of runoff prevention requirements should be in.

On the federal level, the Environmental Protection Agency should declare western Lake Erie impaired, and support aggressive changes to farming practices. But to this point, federal action has been this: In 2014, Congress reauthorized the “Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act.” It was originally passed in 1998 to encourage more research. In typical Washington fashion, however, the measure didn’t actually provide funding; it only signaled the need for it.

The truth is algae blooms are now a nationwide problem from coast to coast. It’s time for elected officials and regulators to man up to the farm lobby and say enough is enough.

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