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Algae blooms threaten boating’s future: Part 1

Not since the 1960s has pollution of our waterways made such headlines. From Chesapeake Bay to the Pacific Northwest, from Canada’s Lake Winnipeg to the Gulf of Mexico, summer toxic blue-green algae blooms have been shutting down recreation areas and constitute another barrier to new boaters joining our ranks.

A case study is Lake Erie, the one-time icon for the nation’s water pollution and, subsequently, an even greater example of an ecosystem recovery. But Erie is again standing out as a symbol of the nation’s most critical water quality problem.

It’s officially called “nutrient pollution” and it’s caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus in the waterways. The Environmental Protection Agency says it’s one of America’s most widespread, costly and challenging environmental problems. But you don’t have to tell the boating industry on Lake Erie; they know it up close and personal.

“A thick and growing coat of algae is now appearing each summer, particularly in western Lake Erie,” Lake Erie Marine Trades Association president Ken Alvey says. “The last couple of years it has covered over a sixth of its waters, contributing to an expanding dead zone, reducing fish populations, fouling beaches, crippling Ohio’s $10 billion tourism and negatively impacting Ohio’s $3-plus billion boating industry. People don’t want to boat in green slime.”


Back in the 1960s, the unregulated constant dumping of sewage and industrial pollutants spawned similar algae blooms. The, the media dubbed Lake Erie “North America’s Dead Sea.”

But Erie recovered, thanks to multibillion-dollar cleanup efforts by the U.S. and Canada. After that, excellent boating and fishing on Erie’s clean waters generated huge increases in boat sales, marina developments, fishing, charterboat fleets, tourism and all that’s related.

How bad is it now? Not long ago, anglers caught about5 million walleye each summer. I was part of that great fishery because I lived along Erie for 37 years and landed my share of walleye. In fact, Erie was recognized for its big fish and even named the “Walleye Capital of the World.”

Today, the catch is roughly 20 percent of that, according to the EPA. A charter fleet of more than 400 boats that once catered to tourists has dropped nearly 50 percent. The fish are gone from huge portions of central Lake Erie because of algae-created “dead zones” that lack oxygen in the water.

Ironically, the problem stems from the same chemical — phosphorus — that we spent billions to successfully reduce in the 1970s. But this time, it’s not municipal or industry outflows . . . no, this time, its new farming techniques coupled, I’m convinced, with the rush to profit from the broken Renewable Fuel Standard that mandates corn ethanol.

The algae thrive on the same phosphorus diet that make plants grow fast. In the 1960s, more than 64 million pounds of phosphorus annually poured into Erie. While no one seems to know today’s exact number, the primary source is as obvious as the green waters. Moreover, it’s mostly poisonous blue-green algae called microcystis. Recent blooms have extended nearly 120 miles on Erie. Concentrations of microcystis, which can be a liver toxin, were up to 1,200 times the World Health Organization limit.

Lake Erie is just an example of what we’re facing. Don’t assume the algae problem is isolated. Similar blooms are strangling many other lakes around the country. In recent summers, toxic algae blooms have prompted public health alerts across much of the Pacific Northwest. They have frequently led authorities to completely shut down recreation sites when the blue-green algae bloom.

So where do we go from here? Can it be stopped? Is there even a suitable plan? Who is on the front line fighting for change? I’ll look at the answers to these and other questions in this Thursday’s Dealer Outlook. Come on back.


3 comments on “Algae blooms threaten boating’s future: Part 1

  1. Rick

    Much of the problem is that most states don’t have a plan in place for BGA. When its discovered they tend to fall back onto World Health Organization guidelines. The WHO guidelines are overly alarming to the public. They unnecessarily alarm the public and kill lake traffic. We experienced it here on Lake Texoma. High BGA cell counts are rarely toxic. The WHO guidelines rely to heavily on cell counts without further testing to determine toxicity. Fortunately by working with our local Grayson County Texas Health Commissioner, the State of Oklahoma, and the USACE we were able to get regular testing for not only BGA cell counts but also toxicity, get the public informed and adopt a more common sense approach with dealing with BGA. Now we need to get measures in place to stop it from occurring in the first place.

  2. Capt. John Page Williams

    Norm, while agricultural runoff may be part of the problem around Lake Erie, don’t forget the phosphorus, nitrogen, and sediment pollution that goes overboard from “impervious surfaces”–our roadways, parking lots, and rooftops. Here on the Chesapeake, wastewater treatment plant operators and farmers are working miracles. They still have more to do, but the only form of pollution that is still increasing is the runoff from our everyday lives. Pogo, the comic strip possum, had it right: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

  3. Chuck Fisher

    Same problem in eastern Florida’s Indian River, but most of our phosphorus comes from lawn fertilizer. But, we still want more new houses with beautiful green lawns.

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