'Blue-Green Godzilla' invades Lake Erie

Oregon, Ohio — Residents saw very few mayflies along the shores of Maumee Bay in western Lake Erie in 2008. One year before, these insect indicators of good water quality were plentiful, according to Sandy Bihn, an environmental watchdog for western Lake Erie.

What caused the mayfly decline?

No one knows for certain, but Bihn suspects a recent outbreak of Lyngbya wollei played a key role.

Two years ago, BASS Times was one of the first national publications to reveal the threat to U.S. fisheries posed by this toxic bacterium masquerading as a filamentous blue-green alga. At that time, it appeared to be confined to Southern waters, where Dr. John Rodgers of Clemson University labored to understand and control what he termed "the beast of water algae."

But now lyngbya has moved north, possibly on the trailer or hull of a boat. No matter how it traveled, it's now firmly entrenched in the western basin of Lake Erie, the warmest and shallowest of the Great Lakes.

Unlike most algae that bloom, float and eventually die, lyngbya grows into the sediment and stays there.

"Maybe it would have gotten more attention if it came in ballast water [as have most invasives, including the zebra mussel]," said Bihn, who warned the Lake Erie Commission of the threat and is leading the charge against what one expert called a "Blue-Green Godzilla."

"Southern waters where it's been found are much smaller than Lake Erie," she added. "Here, the problem could be much worse. Lyngbya likes 3 to 4 feet of water, but it's growing in 8 to 10. It's covering the bottom and smothering the food chain, and no one is doing anything about it."

Anglers have reported that the alga is fouling hooks and lines, covering up the lake bottom around marinas and possibly driving away fish. Mark Brush of The Environment Report said he saw mounds of lyngbya growing up to 3 feet high along the beaches and shores.

"It's like a carpet that grows on top of itself and becomes matted. And it appears to dry, but it doesn't deteriorate," resident Jerry Brown told Brush. "What used to be my wonderful seafront with waves lapping up against my seawall is now what I call my Lower 40 because it's a field."

Discovered in summer/fall 2006, this year's outbreak wasn't quite as bad as the one in 2007, according to Bihn, with cooler summer weather possibly a mediating factor. Although it has proved that it can survive cold winters, lyngbya grows most abundantly when the water temperature is 80 degrees or higher.

"Last fall [2007] there were huge mounds of it. They looked like dunes, sticking right up out of the water," Bihn reported. "It covered up the marina just down the street from where I live and it clogged water intakes.

"It was 6 to 8 feet deep around the outflow of a coal-fired plant [see related story below]. The thermal use of water probably is having a more profound effect than most believe, but everyone is afraid to look at it. Simply put, the growing lyngbya problem in Maumee Bay and western Lake Erie is a four-alarm fire with no first responders."

 

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