Lakefront facility monitors Erie health

On a small island in Lake Erie is a group of people who spend their days studying the lake and the impact the region has on its health and water quality.

Among their goals are eliminating “dead zones,” harmful algal blooms and beach closures – all related to lake water-quality issues – and keeping Asian carp out of Lake Erie to retain its excellent fishing.

One method of reaching their goals is to make the public aware of issues facing Lake Erie and how everybody is affected.

To that end, Jeff Reutter, director of The Ohio State University’s Sea Grant program and Stone Laboratory, hosted a science writers’ workshop Monday and Tuesday designed to explain the varied activities of the program and provide details of research work under way.

“The January 2013 National Evaluation ranks Stone Lab as one of the top programs in the country,” Reutter said.

The Ohio Sea Grant Program and Stone Lab reside mainly on the 6 1/2-acre Gibraltar Island across the harbor from Put-in-Bay, but in June a new water quality lab opened on South Bass Island (where Put-in-Bay is located), and the former fish hatchery has become an Aquatic Visitors Center.

Owned by OSU, Stone Lab is a year-round facility, but is most active April through November.

Founded in 1895, the lab found its permanent home in 1925 on Gibraltar Island. It is the oldest freshwater biological field station in the United States and the center of OSU’s teaching and research about Lake Erie.

The lab offers 25 college-credit science courses each summer for undergraduate and graduate students, advanced high school students and educators, as well as non-credit workshops for people interested in aquatic science and research.

In the past, Reutter said there were four males for every one female student at Stone Lab.

“It’s getting close to being reversed now,” he said.

OSU is one of the only universities in the nation that is a land grant and sea grant college, and Stone Lab is the oldest station in the U.S.

Because of its active education program, the Ohio Sea Grant website (at – of which Stone Lab is a part – gets 10 million hits a year, and the island has 20,000 visitors each year.

From the website, virtual visitors can “look” at island happenings from four live-feed cameras focused on Gibraltar Island, the dock and harbor between the two islands and the area around South Bass Island Lighthouse.

In addition to its own researchers, Stone Lab offers its facilities to researchers from 112 colleges and universities and 366 high schools. Since 1978, Reutter said more than 600 research projects have been conducted from the station. In recent years, there have been more than 50 projects annually.

As part of its public education services, Stone Lab offers field trips that allow students in grades 4-12 to study Lake Erie for a day between mid-April and October. The daylong or overnight trips can accommodate up to 80 people.

Each group spends two hours on a research vessel on Lake Erie, collecting environmental and biological data and trawling for fish. They work in a lab for two hours, where they dissect fish and look through microscopes.

Teachers also can choose from science-themed activities such as an edible plants walk, invertebrate walk or ornithology hike.

The newest field trip activity is a “Climate Expedition,” produced with funding from a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant, which teaches students the effects of climate changes on the Great Lakes region.

There also are online versions of education programs available.

Public awareness of the research being conducted at Stone Lab is important, Reutter said, because it affects peoples’ lives.

Some of the lake’s water-quality problems happen because the lake is the southernmost of the Great Lakes, and therefore the warmest. It also is the most shallow and the most nutrient-rich.

Lake Erie provides drinking water for 11 million people and water cooling for more than 20 power plants.

Recreationally, Reutter said there are more than 300 marinas in Ohio and 40 percent of all charter businesses on the Great Lakes are on Lake Erie.

He said about 50 percent of the water in the Great Lakes is in Lake Superior, but only about 2 percent of the fish, while Lake Erie contains about 2 percent of the water and 50 percent of the fish.

The area, which has become known as the Walleye Capital of the World, supports a $1 billion annual sport fishery, which is one of the 10 top sport fishing locations in the world and the largest freshwater commercial fishery in the world.

Reutter said much of that economic impact happened between the 1970s, when the lake was called “dead” and there was an estimated 112,000 walleye, to the mid-1980s, when a healthier lake produced about 5 million walleye.

But Reutter said the lake’s health has swung back in the opposite direction.

Comparatively, he said the 2011’s large harmful algal bloom, or HAB, caused the loss of 100 charter businesses.

Reutter said too many nutrients entering the western basin of the lake from its tributaries – mainly the Maumee and Sandusky rivers – is creating “dead zones” where there is no oxygen left to support aquatic life.

Loss of water quality is threatening the fishery – and the area economy – along with the threat of Asian carp getting into the Great Lakes.

If the invasive species gets into Lake Michigan, Reutter said they’ll soon be in all of the lakes because 80 percent of Lake Erie’s water comes from the other four lakes. The other 20 percent is from its tributaries (10 percent) and direct precipitation.

If they arrive, Reutter said the invasive carp would affect Lake Erie more than the other four Great Lakes because Erie is shallow and warm, the best habitat for the invasive carp.

They also would likely reduce the Lake Erie fishery by 50 percent to 90 percent by taking over the habitat and food supply.

“We’ll still have perch and we’ll still have walleye,” he said. “We’ll just have a whole lot less of them.”