Researchers with the Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping project concluded, after more than three years of research, that Lake Erie is the second most threatened of the Great Lakes, behind Lake Ontario. The computer maps resulting from the project are the first of their kind, and offer a wealth of information to conservationists and policy makers combating problems on the world's largest fresh water lakes.
The study examined 34 stressors, including but not limited to invasive species, climate change, and pollution. Of particular concern for Lake Erie are large blooms of cyanobacteria, more commonly known as blue-green algae. Strains of cyanobacteria release toxins that are harmful to humans and animals both.
The troubles caused by these pesky algae do not end with toxins, however. Huge algae blooms often lead to a hypoxic (low-oxygen) environment known as a dead zone. The vast amount of algae cannot be supported by the environment, and necessarily die off en masse. This die off is followed by a bloom of bacteria who rapidly reproduce to take advantage of a new and plentiful food source. In the process of decomposing the dead cyanobacteria, the decomposers effectively use up a great deal of the oxygen dissolved in the water, leading to die offs of other organisms.
Data suggests that the algae blooms and the subsequent hypoxic zones are being fed by fertilizer run off from Ohio farms. Fertilizers are rich in phosphorous and nitrogen, two elements that in large enough quantities can encourage algae growth.
Algae are not the only species causing trouble in Lake Erie, however. Invasive species have entered the lake over the years due to human activities, notably ocean-going vessels emptying their bilge water, thus introducing new species into the environment. Notable invaders include a species of shore reed called phragmites, round gobies, and, to a lesser extent, Zebra and quagga mussels.
This report is significant as it could affect how money is allocated. Funding to combat these issues comes from the Federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. It remains to be seen how Lake Erie's status as "2nd worst" will affect state and federal response to the profound problems faced by Ohio's Great Lake.