Walking the beaches of Lake Erie this summer will bring the usual. Fresh air. Exercise. Good memories. Even sunburn.
What it won’t bring – thankfully – are some of the sights and smells of 10 or 20 years ago.
That’s when botulism left thousands of birds massacred along the shore.
It was when trash was at a high tide.
And it was when some native fish and wildlife – which had long since disappeared under decades of pollution – remained far away from home.
Problems remain with Lake Erie.
Sewage overflows and stormwater runoff. Pharmaceuticals. Invasive creatures. Lake levels. Fertilizer and algae. Dead zones.
But the efforts of concerned people are making a difference in cleaning up the water and the shore.
Botulism has subsided.
There’s less trash.
And with the emergence of some once-endangered fish and wildlife in Buffalo Niagara – from the bald eagle to the prehistoric lake sturgeon – hope has sprung.
The scenes from the front lines of Lake Erie’s botulism outbreak a decade ago were reminiscent of a battlefield.
Waterfowl carnage was everywhere.
Loons, ducks, geese and gulls washed ashore by the thousands along beaches between Erie, Pa., and Buffalo.
They picked up the bacteria that causes botulism by feasting on contaminated prey or by other means, and then they became unable to fly.
Shortly afterward, neck paralysis set in, and the waterfowl struggled to keep their heads above the surface of the water.
Their fate was sealed. They drowned.
For people along the shore who witnessed that sight, it is a troubling memory that is difficult to forget.
“It’s an awful, awful thing to watch,” said Sharen Trembath, an Angola resident and lake advocate who roamed a stretch of beach from Point Breeze to Sturgeon Point Marina, collecting hundreds of the dead birds during a die-off in December 2000. “Watching one die is horrible. It’s horrible.”
For people like Trembath, the aftermath of a botulism outbreak is a spectacle they hope to never see again.
The number of bird carcasses washing up on Lake Erie’s eastern shores today are not what they were in the early 2000s.
That sounds encouraging – unless you consider the possible reasons why.
“There just aren’t that many birds,” said Helen Domske of New York Sea Grant, a statewide university-based advocacy program promoting aquatic conservation. “We have seen die-offs every year, but much, much less than what we’d seen lately.”
From time to time, botulism rears its ugly head in isolated pockets, including Scajaquada Creek, especially between Cheektowaga and Forest Lawn, according to Jill Jedlicka, executive director of the Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper.
Jedlicka pointed out that when water conditions, temperature and sediment – where the botulism-causing bacteria is concentrated – mix up in just the right – or wrong – way, botulism reappears in the form of waterfowl death along the creek.
“Botulism hasn’t gone away, and it won’t go away,” Domske cautioned. “The bacteria itself is in the ecosystem.”
Botulism, a bacterial illness in which activated neurotoxins result in paralysis, is still being studied.
There are seven types of bacterial classifications, including types A and B, which most commonly affect humans through food-borne illness. Type E botulism is most associated with the devastation of birds and aquatic life in Lake Erie and throughout the Great Lakes.
The bacteria exists naturally but can turn toxic when conditions are most ripe – warmer water temperatures, a specific water chemistry, less oxygen in the water. It becomes most visually and odoriferously apparent when dead birds or fish wash ashore.
Botulism spreads through the food chain.
After the invasive, but now ubiquitous, quagga mussel picks up the bacteria, the mussels are eaten by round goby fish, some of whom get sick from the toxin and become unable to swim. The sick goby fish, which wallow near the water’s surface, then become easy prey for predators such as loons or other birds.
“All the loon needs to eat are two round gobies with that toxin in them, and the loon dies,” Domske said.
It remains unclear why there’s been a lull in botulism on Lake Erie’s shores locally. It may be just luck.
“It’s just under the right conditions that it produces the toxin,” he said.
Scientists have some theories.
One involves quagga mussels. Experts theorize that increased numbers of the mussels in the lake might mean that the bacteria is spread around more, leading to less concentrated contamination per mussel and then lesser doses for the gobies that consume them.
A second theory has to do with the birds themselves. Some experts think there is less avian wildlife, thanks to the botulism die-offs in recent years.
Finally, others theorize that the conditions that foster botulism have just not been favorable to the spread of the toxin in recent years.
But if and when it will sweep across the shoreline is anyone’s guess.
“I don’t think you have any idea when this is going to happen,” said Trembath, who keeps her fingers crossed. “This botulism thing was scary. I do hope it never happens again.”
It’s thanks to people like you cleaning up area shorelines.
Whether by carrying a trash bag on a beach walk, volunteering at one of many “beach sweeps” or just using a trash can, people are making trash disappear from the dunes, cliffs and waves along Lake Erie’s shore.
“I think we’re training people to clean up after themselves,” said Trembath, who has dedicated decades of her life to advocating for shoreline issues and who leads many of the nearly 1.000 local volunteers every September for the area’s annual Great Lakes Beach Sweep.
Not long ago, hypodermic needles by the thousands washed up along Lake Erie shores.
So did fluid-filled dialysis bags, other medical waste, diapers and tires.
It was a time when beach bums discarded their metal “pop tops” from canned soda and beer, without knowing many would wind up slitting the throats of fish who mistook them for shiny food.
That also was when getting rid of a used tire meant, for many, heaving it into the lake; when fun at school meant releasing helium-filled balloons into the open air; and when colorful Styrofoam packaging from empty fast-food containers blew across the sands of the beach.
All of that has changed, thanks to people like Trembath and others fighting to change the attitudes of those messing with the shoreline.
But there are always new challenges.
Plastic water bottles have replaced those Styrofoam containers on the beach, and every year they show up by the hundreds. Instead of “pop tops,” there are plastic rings from six-pack containers.
But the Beach Sweep, which is a national initiative through the American Littoral Society – a half-century-old national organization promoting conservation and protection of marine life, coast and shorelines – and the Ocean Conservancy, an ocean advocacy group, has brought about significant changes to our daily lives in ways many don’t even realize.
Those include getting fast-food restaurants to use biodegradable cardboard for fast-food packaging; modifications to tampons, which often found their way onto beaches; new tab designs for soft drink cans; and the end to festive balloon releases into the environment.
Work is also under way in the bottling industry to develop a bio- degradable six-pack ring.
“The best thing is, there is more awareness,” Trembath said. “People are finally getting more aware of the importance of the lake.”
Not all is bleak with Lake Erie.
Efforts continue on the part of environmental advocates and public and private entities to help lift Lake Erie, its watershed and the surrounding Buffalo Niagara region.
Parts of the lake and some of its inhabitants seem to be feeding on a few of humans’ recent successes.
The re-emergence of a couple of once-endangered fish and birds around Buffalo Niagara has brought hope.
More and more residents are catching sight of a bald eagle along local shorelines as well as inland, including the appearance this year of a nest on Strawberry Island.
“For the first time in a long, long time, we have a nest on the Niagara River,” said Mark Kandel, a local wildlife manager for the state DEC, who added that others have settled on Navy Island, Ont., not far from Niagara Falls. “Lake Erie and the Niagara River are cleaner and are able to sustain eagles again.”
Other birds are also rebounding.
Osprey are inhabiting island areas in the Niagara River, and toxin-sensitive cormorants have re-established themselves in Buffalo Niagara, so much so they now often irritate fishermen with their voracious appetite.
“We’ve had the habitat,” Kandel said. “The final piece was the quality of the prey, which is directly related to water quality.”
Several native fish species are also on their way back, while others are still struggling.
Perch and walleye are headed toward re-establishing healthy populations. And lake sturgeon – frequently hailed as “a living dinosaur” – seem to be spawning in the river on their way back into the local aquatic habitat.
The sturgeon remain a protected species and are, themselves, adapting to their new environment. The bottom-dwelling sturgeon, apparently irked by the sharp shells of the quagga mussels that have colonized the lake bed, now seem to travel just a little bit above them.
On the other hand, despite efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to stock the lake with 120,000 lake trout over the last three decades, evidence shows they have failed to reproduce effectively on their own in Lake Erie, according to Kofi Fynn-Aikins, a fishing biologist with the service.
Don Einhouse, a DEC fish biologist, said part of the reason for that might be the invasive parasitic sea lamprey, which seems to prefer sucking the blood from lake trout.
Einhouse noted that steelhead trout are also experiencing a downturn in Lake Erie.
“It’s kind of a mixed bag,” Einhouse said of Lake Erie’s fish populations. “There is a fair amount of good news.”
Taking care of the lake
In general, the recovery of many species of native fish and wildlife is rooted in the habitat restoration efforts, the Clean Water Act and decrease in industry, according to the Riverkeeper’s Jedlicka.
“Our region is undergoing a transformation not seen in a generation,” Jedlicka said. “Our transformation is from rust to blue.”
Jedlicka credits a “collaborative community vision” and numerous local public-private initiatives for the comeback.
Some of those initiatives include:
• A $70 million cleanup of the Buffalo River.
• The installation of porous pavement in a green infrastructure demonstration project on Clarendon Place and rain gardens on nearby Windsor Avenue that seem to help in eliminating stormwater runoff into the Buffalo Sewer System.
• Mobilization of thousands of volunteers in tidying up the 14,000-square-mile Niagara River watershed.
• Ecological restoration efforts of the 37-mile Niagara River Greenway.
“We’ve done a lot of work,” said Dick Smith, the former Hamburg assemblyman who helped found the Southtowns Walleye Association. “But Mother Nature always bets last. As soon as we get something solved, something else comes along.”
Cautioned Smith: “If we don’t monitor it and take care of the lake, it’s not going to take care of us.”
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