Algae is ugly: Why Lake Erie anglers avoid harmful algal blooms

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Wake of a boat driving through a harmful algal bloom on Lake Erie. Image: NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

By Marie Orttenburger

Harmful algal blooms have changed the way many Lake Erie recreational anglers and charter captains fish.

One study shows a majority of Lake Erie anglers have changed how they fish in response to algal blooms—including changing fishing locations, deciding not to fish and spending less or more time fishing. Another predicts massive fishing license revenue losses.

But until recently, none had investigated why anglers avoid fishing in the midst of what are nicknamed HABs.

It is because algae is ugly, reports a new study.

Aesthetics were the unifying concern among seven focus groups made up of 41 Lake Erie recreational anglers and charter captains. Responses to other factors like health risks and impact on catch rates were mixed.

HABs exude a putrid smell when decomposing. They paint the lake’s clear blue waters in an opaque green, slimy mess.

“For some of them it looks unnatural. It looks like the lake is sick,” said Devin Gill, stakeholder engagement specialist for the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research and principal author of the study.

Most anglers would prefer to fish on Lake Erie, Gill said. But HABs can be a buzzkill.

“They love Lake Erie; they love being on a larger water body. It’s just the question of having the kind of experience that they want to have on Lake Erie,” Gill said.

The study sought to understand why anglers avoid HABs to see how the institute’s HAB Tracker tool could be adapted to better suit them.

“By understanding the reasoning for it, the idea is that we can produce a tool that would allow them to continue to fish on Lake Erie,” Gill said.

The HAB Tracker was designed for public water systems after the 2014 Toledo water crisis when algal toxins contaminated the city’s drinking water. The tool was designed to show the location of HABs on Lake Erie, predict where they might move and when the blooms are going to reach a certain depth where toxins could intrude water intakes.

The Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research wanted to see how other stakeholders might make use of the tool. The group based at the University of Michigan is a consortium of Great Lakes research universities supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“We’ve got this great information. This might be useful to other folks,” Gill said. “The issue is trying to figure out how to package it.”

The institute hired Gill, then a graduate student, to interview anglers and charter captains to gauge their main concerns. They took her findings and gave the HAB Tracker a facelift.

Screenshot of the updated HAB Tracker webpage.

The focus groups revealed that anglers were doing a bit of their own HAB forecasting. They reported researching things like weather, wave height, wind direction and Lake Erie satellite imagery before embarking on their fishing trips.

“We actually discovered that a number of the anglers who spent a lot of time on Lake Erie, especially the charter captains, were looking for these different factors and kind of making predictions for themselves about where the blooms were going to move,” Gill said.

In response, the institute incorporated wave height and wind direction forecasts on the HAB Tracker webpage. Now the webpage is showing the forecast and the data that supports it.

“In other words, [anglers] didn’t just want to see our final product,” Gill said. “They wanted to see that it reflected their own understanding.”

The study also provided insight on how the institute might improve communicating its goals. Anglers were skeptical about the accuracy of that forecast and wondered why the institute was making a forecasting tool instead of getting rid of HABs.

“It’s a fair question,” Gill said. “Everything that we’re doing . . . is going to help us in a larger sense come up with strategies to manage and reduce the blooms. This is one piece of that. That needed to be communicated more clearly.”

This study marks a renewed focus on stakeholder concerns for the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research, Gill said.

“As a result of this study, we are now developing a way to incorporate stakeholder concerns and feedback throughout the design of a larger number of our research products,” Gill said. “We’re collaborating with them now. We’re including them in discussions about research design in the very beginning, so it’s not an afterthought.”

2 thoughts on “Algae is ugly: Why Lake Erie anglers avoid harmful algal blooms

  1. Anglers are inherently lazy. They avoid algae blooms the same way they avoid helping to fight the cause. A stalled natural conveyor caused by the ice boom, has resulted in the building up of detritus and algae. Google Joe Barrett ice boom for the truth.

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