What Lake Erie cottagers need to know about this summer’s algal blooms

Published: July 19, 2019

algal-bloom-in-lake Photo by jelloyd/Shutterstock

It’s going to get worse, says Mike McKay, referring to the algal blooms on Lake Erie, about which experts are already sounding alarms. Algal blooms typically peak from mid-August through early September so we’re only seeing the beginning, says McKay, who’s executive director of the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research at the University of Windsor in Windsor, Ontario.

But though they’re alarming — and disgusting — Lake Erie’s algal blooms are not uncommon, says McKay, noting that 2015 and 2017 both had significant blooms. There is, however, an increased awareness of and concern regarding blooms, he says, largely because of the 2014 water crisis in Toledo, Ohio, during which residents couldn’t drink the water for 48 hours.

Since then, “we’ve seen a lot more effort in terms of trying to monitor or track blooms. We’ve seen more effort in terms of water treatment plants, to ensure that [the water] doesn’t carry any toxins.”

The primary concern, according to the U.S.-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is that the blooms consist of cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, that can produce microcystin, a liver toxin. The NOAA is developing tools to detect and measure the toxicity of algal blooms.

We can blame the blooms on agricultural products – i.e. fertilizer – making its way into Lake Erie’s tributaries. Since the majority of agricultural land is on the U.S. side of the lake, Ontario has been largely spared the blooms that are growing on the American side of the Great Lake. The exception, says McKay, is Pelee Island, which is experiencing significant blooms.

While there are other concerns regarding algal blooms — potential problems include dermatitis and nausea — for the most part, cottagers don’t need to worry, says McKay. There are already guidelines in place regarding eating fish caught in the lake. What’s more, toxins from algal blooms generally collect in the organs of fish, rather than the edible flesh.

McKay does urge caution for cottagers who don’t get their water supply from a municipal source. No worries, he says, regarding showering and bathing, or even swimming. But if your area is experiencing algal blooms, “Bottled water is probably the easiest and safest bet.”

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