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IJNR day 3: The Dead Zone

This Magazine Staff

It’s my third day on this circumnavigation of Lake Erie’s environmental challenges, and once again I’m on a boat and wishing for a decent cup of coffee. Which I won’t have for some time.
This time, it’s a trawler among islands around in Put-in-Bay, Ohio, where the Americans decimated the British fleet in 1813. There are no canons on this particular boat. The biggest gun is Jeff Reutter, director of the Stone Lab, which is housed on one of the islands. Picture an elfin Chuck Norris, and you’ve got some idea of what Jeff looks like. We’re within sight of Pelee Island in Ontario, and Middle Island where later in the week we might see sharpshooters picking off 7000 cormorants. It’s a drizzly, cold day, just seven degrees Celsius

We’re on the trawler to study invasive species (the lab is part of Ohio State University). Bottom sediments yield a few zebra mussel shells, some mayfly larvae and a worm or two, but little else. The bottom is thick silt, washed out of the Maumee River near Toledo. The lake bottom is where all of Ohio’s rich agricultural land ends up, thanks to tiling and lousy land management.
Once upon a time, Erie was declared a dead lake. Yesterday I was walking atop an old landfill near Toledo, one of many that have been cleaned up. The Maumee watershed has a long way to go, but is one place chock full of environmental success stories. “You could see red leachate coming out of the Dura landfill,” Tom Henry remarks. He’s the environmental reporter at the Toledo Blade, a dedicated reporter and very generous font of knowledge.
Out on the boat, as two reporters struggle to haul in a net, Jeff is talking about the Lake Erie “dead zone.” The lake recovered and is now home to a thriving freshwater fishery. The contents of the net confirm this, yielding a half-dozen fish species including yellow perch and the invasive round goby (which probably came in with the ballast water of a ship, just as the zebra mussel did). There’s a layer of the lake with no oxygen, a “dead zone” in which nothing can live. It’s been of concern for a long time, but, Jeff tells us, what we need to deal with is the runoff problem.
The lake is plagued by blue-green algae blooms. On shore he showed us a picture of an algal plume spreading outward from the Maumee, miles into the lake. These blooms are the result of high levels of nutrients – silt and fertilizer runoff – washing out into the lake, which is shallow and warm. The blooms can be toxic. And they block out light to the lake bottom, contributing to the anoxic zone. And when they die, they use up oxygen as they decompose.
To solve the dead zone problem, we have to deal with the silt and fertilizers flowing into the lake, he says.
After releasing the fish we head back to the lab. There will be coffee, he promises. And there is. Not good coffee, but at least it’s hot.

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