Professor looks into Lake Erie’s oxygen problem

Derek Lenehan

Robert Heath, professor of biological sciences, is conducting research on Lake Erie to find the cause behind the “dead zones” developing in the Great Lake.

The dead zones are oxygen-insufficent regions where marine life can not survive.

Lake Erie is the world’s largest fresh water fishery, Heath said, and the dead zones threaten the abundance.

The problem could have a serious impact on Erie-based economics, if not properly addressed and reversed.

“On the American side of the lake, there could be an impact on fishing charters and recreational activities, which sounds trivial, but it is a multibillion dollar industry,” Heath said. “On the Canadian side, the impact would be more significant. The majority of Canada’s fresh water fishing is on Lake Erie.”

The dead zones could be caused by one of three current hypotheses, according to Heath. The first is that an abundance of phosphorus is causing eutrophication, or the over-feeding of plankton, which can encourage the growth of algae that do not feed organisms as well as the algae that normally resides in Lake Erie.

“This would be bad news that is good. If this is the case, we can cure it by reducing the amount of phosphorus that goes into the lake,” Heath said. “The phosphorus is most likely from residential and agricultural runoff, and the use of phosphorus-based fertilizers.”

The second hypothesis is that zebra muscles, which have recently invaded Lake Erie, could be altering the balance of nutrients within the lake.

“If it is the zebra muscles, it would be bad news that is bad, because there isn’t much that can be done about it,” Heath said.

Global warming is the third possible cause. Climate changes could be promoting different forms of life over the organisms that are part of the interdependent lake ecosystem.

“This would be bad news that is really bad, there is nothing we could do about global warming,” Heath said.

Heath and his team of three others work aboard the RV Lake Guardian, a vessel that houses several groups of scientists.

“We are working 24/7,” he said. “Three of us will be working while one sleeps.”

Heath attended a meeting of leading scientists in Canada last week to discuss the research, and what is to be done next. He will attend another such meeting at the beginning of March.

Contact academic affairs reporter Derek Lenehan at [email protected]