Research on Lake Erie algae blooms imperiled
Part 3 in a series about President Trump's budget
A lot of attention has focused on President Trump's proposal to eliminate funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which doles out $300 million a year for various projects. But his "skinny budget" has other cuts -- including the National Sea Grant program -- that would affect the region.
Three months ago, Dr. Chris Winslow became director of Ohio Sea Grant, after holding the position on an interim basis.
But then the Trump Administration released its budget blueprint for 2018 – which cut all federal funding for Sea Grant programs, including Ohio’s.
“I had an agenda of things I was going to be doing over the next three or four months,” says Winslow. “That is slightly changed now, there’s other things that have to be on there. So it changes my workload and what I’m addressing.”
There are 33 Sea Grant programs around the country, and they're funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Every coastal state has one, including the eight bordering the Great Lakes.
The programs have a three-pronged focus: research, education, and outreach.
Winslow says he wants Ohio Sea Grant to be purposeful in its research. “Before we put priorities in our request for research funding, I contact EPA, I contact the Department of Natural Resources, I contact [The Department of] Agriculture, I contact [The Department of] Health.
“I say, ‘Hey, we’re going to put a call out for research – what’s an issue you’d like to have better handle on?’”
For the last 10 years, a major issue has been harmful algae blooms, the sometimes-toxic algae overgrowth that can shut down beaches and threaten drinking water.
With financial help from other state agencies, Ohio Sea Grant has managed over 50 different projects focused on the blooms. They range from tracking blooms and studying water treatment to educating farmers about nutrient runoff. There’s also been research on how harmful algae blooms affect people.
In an Ohio State University lab, research assistant Alex Kua blends head meat from a walleye, one of Lake Erie’s most popular catches. He’s part of a team helping Ohio create fish consumption advisories based on microcystin – a toxin produced by blue-green algae.
The walleye smoothie is the first step in a lengthy process to extract the toxin from the fish. Professor Stuart Ludsin leads the research team.
“The state’s been getting a lot of questions from anglers about whether it’s safe to eat fish during the harmful algal bloom season,” Dr. Ludsin says. “Instead of just guessing, they wanted to put some quantitative data to it.”
Ludsin’s team found allowable levels of toxins in the muscle tissue of walleye and yellow perch. He says until further research is done, its best to follow advisories already set for mercury levels in fish – one walleye per week, and two perch per week.
A couple of miles away, Dr. Jiyoung Lee studies the effects of microcystin on lettuce, carrots and green beans by irrigating the vegetables with toxin-contaminated water. Lee says the toxin affects shape and color of the vegetables, and a farmer’s bottom line.
“If the toxin microcystin is there, it affects food safety, but also it really affects food quality and crop yield,” Lee says.
Lee’s results show that half of the toxin goes to the crop, while the other half goes to the soil. How long the toxin remains in the soil is unclear and requires more research, says Lee.
While larger farms typically use groundwater in their operations, Lee notes that smaller farms may use surface water. She recommends surface water reservoirs be tested for microcystin during the harmful algae bloom season.
Trump's budget blueprint says NOAA programs like Sea Grant primarily benefit industry, state, and local stakeholders. His budget shifts more money to the military and for a wall along the Mexican border.
The White House did not respond to request for comment.
Winslow says the Ohio Sea Grant program has a broad reach. “Anything we learn about harmful algal blooms, it’s going to Florida.
“Actually, I would argue, going to Iowa. And Iowa doesn’t have a Sea Grant program. But Iowa has ag and Iowa has harmful algal blooms.”
Ohio’s program has survived federal cuts before. It has a diversified revenue stream that includes the university, the state, and private donors.
But while NOAA only provides 30 percent of the Ohio program’s total budget, the federal government provides 100 percent of the research budget. Which means some algae bloom studies wouldn’t get done quickly, or at all.
Researchers stress the need for more research on microcystin in fish, especially during extreme bloom conditions.
“At this point, I don’t know if we’ve sampled the worst case scenario,” says Ludsin. He used Lake Erie fish from 2015 and 2016 – both were mild years for toxic algae blooms.
Meanwhile, Winslow plans to spend the next few months explaining how Ohio Sea Grant’s research connects to the success of the state’s economy and its tourism.
Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) recently spoke in support of Ohio Sea Grant and its funding, saying, “It’s an important part of the research that’s being done and the monitoring that’s being done, particularly on the algal blooms.
Coming in Part 4: On a Lake Huron tributary, workers rush to repair or remove aging dams in danger of collapsing.
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