New potentially toxic algae turns up on Great Lakes beach

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An algae that is potentially toxic has shown up on a Michigan beach at Lake St. Clair. Image: Vijay Kannappan

By Leslie Mertz

A new species is apparently making its way onto Great Lakes beaches, and it is potentially toxic.

Native to the southeastern United States, it is a blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, called Lyngbya wollei.  It was first found in the Great Lakes region in the St. Lawrence Seaway in 2005. Then it was spotted in Lake Erie in 2006.

Now it has been identified at Lake St. Clair Metropark north of Detroit, according to Wayne State University ecologist Donna Kashian.

Her research paper on the finding is under review for publication in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Great Lakes Research.

Kashia first spotted the cyanobacteria in 2009 while documenting vegetation prior to an effort to remove an invasive shoreline weed from the park.

“Once we got there, it became obvious there was this other stuff all over the beach,” she said. She immediately recognized it as a type of Lyngbya. “It’s very distinctive. It washes up in balls, like pebbles. If you took coarse hair and rubbed it like Play-Doh between your hands into a ball and dyed it green, that’s exactly what it looks like.”

In 2010, she and several other researchers separately determined it was Lyngbya wollei, the same organism that has plagued waters in the southeastern United States for decades. It forms thick, nuisance blooms and releases toxins that can cause skin, oral and gastrointestinal inflammation.

Kashian suspects that the cyanobacteria entered the Great Lakes system by hitchhiking on the hulls of boats.

She has seen Lyngbya wollei at the park every year since her initialdiscovery. She noted an especially large amount in 2012, possibly due to the hot summer.

Image: Vijay Kannappan

Image: Vijay Kannappan

But it may have been around for some time.

For a decade or so, park staff have seen what is presumed to be the same cyanobacteria on the beach, although they never identified it, said Paul Muelle, chief of natural resources for the Huron Clinton Metroparks, which includes the Lake St. Clair park.

“We get some (every year), but since we clean the beach on a daily basis during the use season, it really hasn’t been a huge problem there,” he said. Because other weeds make up the bulk of the daily beach grooming, pinpointing the cost for removal of the cyanobacteria is difficult. Nonetheless, using information from Muelle, Kashian estimated that the park’s tab for removal of Lyngbya was about $10,000 in 2010.

“Where we are noticing it more is in the natural areas where we don’t do active management,” Muelle said. He described mats of Lyngbya wollei that extend “40-50 feet wide,” in the area of the park near Point Rosa Marsh.

“And it’s deep,” he said. “We had grass growing on the top of it. It looks like solid ground and I tried to walk out there, but you could go up to your waist in gook. It was pretty excessive.”

One concern is thatLyngbyawill spread to other areas, particularly to shallow-water areas such as parts of Saginaw Bay and to inland lakes, Kashian said. The other concern isthat it will produce toxins.

“It absolutely could become toxic here, but we don’t know enough about it,” Kashian said. She noted that even with the blooms of Microcystis, a different type of cyanobacteria that has been heavily studied, scientists still don’t know why only some blooms are toxic.

“They don’t know what triggers it to start producing toxins, and we know even less about Lyngbya than Microcystis,” she said.

While Lyngbya wollei typically carries a toxin in the southern United States, the Lake Erie sample was not toxic. Kashian’s funding didn’t cover toxicity research. Instead, she investigated if the cyanobacteria at the park harbor E. coli bacteria, a bacteria that often prompts beach closings.

“We found very high levels of bacteria in these mats,” she said. “That’s a problem because it’s all over the beach, and if you have a lot of bacteria and kids play on it, they can potentially get sick. In addition, if you have large deposits on the shore and there’s wave action, bacteria could actually be transported back into the lake and that could contribute to beach closures.”

The mats also disrupt water flow into and out of Point Rosa Marsh, Muelle said. Marsh-restoration is under way and the removal of the Lyngbya mats is part of that effort. At the swimming beach, “the question is how do we manage this,” Muelle said. “If there are problems, obviously we’re concerned about public contact.”

Kashian added, “It’s definitely an invasive, nuisance species worth watching, because it hasn’t been documented in the Great Lakes before the first sightings in the St. Lawrence.”

8 thoughts on “New potentially toxic algae turns up on Great Lakes beach

  1. I have seen this for years. It’s stage 2 of toxic algae build up. It would not and could not happen if the natural conveyor was restored. It is a shame nobody but me wants to talk about the elephant in the room. Lake Erie is dying from an inhibited ice conveyor because of the ice boom. Read “Ice boom theory” at and get involved. Thanks Joe Barrett

  2. An unfortunate side-effect of eutrophication, but NOT a new invasion to the Great Lakes. Lyngbya wollei was catalogued as the genus Plectonema on Lake Erie decades ago (Taft & Taft. 1971, 1990. The algae of western Lake Erie: Bulletin of the Ohio Biological Survey, 4(1). College of Biological Sciences, The Ohio State University in Cooperation with Ohio Sea Grant College Program, Columbus.).

  3. In Highpoint, North Carolina and in Oregon, Ohio(Toledo suburb) where there was lyngbya, it is no more. Oregon gets it when it blows in from the Bolles Harbor, Michigan shoreline(near Monroe) but it does not ‘live’ and stay as it once did.
    How did we get rid of it?
    By eliminating combined sewer overflows. When the sewage stopped feeding the lyngba it went away. Toledo put in tunnels to stop the Oregon source and HIghpoint put in control measures. At the time the CSO control measures were put in it was not known that sewage was the lyngbya food.
    The lyngbya in Lake Erie/Maumee Bay and in North Carolina was dense, deep, and weeds grew on it.
    I would check sewage sources in the area lyngbya is found. If there is a sewage control project coming – check before and after.

  4. Something is feeding this stuff for it to increase no matter how it got in. If you cut off the oxygen a fire dies. Many examples of algae control not being applied here. Why? Scale? Too big a problem? I think some people are making things much more coplicated than they need to be. My experience has been to make sure the basics are right first when solving a problem. 99% of the time basic rules were being violated regardless of how complicated or costly the process is.

  5. Has consideration been given to the possibility that migrating waterfowl transport the algae?

  6. It’s my understanding there are zooplankton that will eat toxic algae. Is this stuff fed by too much phytoplankton in the water that zooplankton also eat? Any thoughts?

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