Green gunk visits Mich.’s ‘most beautiful place’

EMPIRE -- Ron Long recently visited one of his favorite beaches at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, only to find it marred by dark green algae that clouded the water and piled up on the sand.

"This is the worst I’ve ever seen this beach -- and I’ve been coming here for 50 years. It’s really sad," said Long, a Milford resident who was visiting the popular Esch Road beach near Empire.

Foreign mussels that hitchhiked to the Great Lakes in the ballast water tanks of international freighters have turned Sleeping Bear Dunes -- "The Most Beautiful Place in America," according to "Good Morning America" -- into a poster child for one of the most vexing environmental problems facing the Great Lakes.

Zebra and quagga mussels native to Europe’s Caspian Sea are transforming Great Lakes ecosystems and fueling rampant algae growth in all of the lakes except Lake Superior, which doesn’t have enough calcium to support shell formation. The mussels have increased water clarity in the lakes, which allows sunlight to penetrate deeper and support more algae growth.

Decaying cladophora algae that washes up on beaches is more than an eyesore: It harbors bacteria that can pose health threats to humans, fish and wildlife, according to scientific studies.

Cladophora has been linked to Type E botulism outbreaks that have killed more than 70,000 Great Lakes water birds over the past decade.

Chris Otto, a National Park Service biologist who works at Sleeping Bear Dunes, said the cladophora problem is in stark contrast to the national publicity that heaped praise on the popular park west of Traverse City. He said park visitors routinely complain about the algae.

"People come here to see a pristine beach and it’s kind of shocking to see this algae," Otto said. "People are turned off by it."

However, officials at the Michigan Economic Development Corp., which runs the Pure Michigan advertising campaign, said the algae problem at Sleeping Bear Dunes and other beaches is not hurting tourism.

"We checked in with several of our local partners, and the Department of Natural Resources, and they have not heard customer complaints about this," MEDC spokeswoman Michelle Begnoche said. "We will certainly continue to monitor the situation, but at this time algae blooms appear to be at most a minor distraction with little impact on tourism here in Michigan."

Wind and waves can cause the algae to swamp a beach one day and then carry the noxious cladophora away a day later. But government studies have found that some of the harmful bacteria that thrive in decaying cladophora can linger in wet sand.

Otto said many people assume that polluting industries or faulty municipal sewage treatment facilities are to blame for the cladophora problem at Sleeping Bear Dunes. That’s not the case: Zebra and quagga mussels are the culprits.

Mussel-ing in

Zebra and quagga mussels spread like a virulent disease after invading the Great Lakes in the late 1980s. They have caused the most profound ecological changes in the recorded history of the lakes, according to researchers.

The invaders have:

* Hurt the $7 billion Great Lakes fishery by taking a giant bite out of the food chain; disrupted power plants and water treatment facilities.

* Played a major role in the collapse of Lake Huron’s salmon fishery.

* Threatened a Lake Michigan salmon fishery that pumps millions of dollars into coastal communities.

"These foreign mussels are causing a lot of problems in the Great Lakes and excess cladophora is one of them," said Gary Fahnenstiel, a senior scientist at Michigan Technological University’s Great Lakes Research Center. "The algae is harmless but it harbors a lot of fecal bacteria … people should stay away from it."

Quagga mussels were first spotted in Lake Michigan in 1991. There are now more than 950 trillion quaggas on the lake bottom -- about a half-billion pounds of the fingernail sized-mollusks, according to government data.

Fahnenstiel and other Great Lakes experts have said the foreign mollusks are effectively sucking the life out of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. The mussels increased water clarity, but unleashed ecological havoc.

Each zebra and quagga mussel can filter up to one liter of water per day. Under certain conditions, the quagga mussel population can filter all the water in Lake Michigan in nine to12 days, according to University of Michigan research scientist David Jude.

As they filter water through their bodies, zebra and quagga mussels consume plankton, tiny organisms that are the foundation of the Great Lakes food chain. That increases water clarity, which allows sunlight to penetrate deeper in the lake.

Sunlight at greater depths, coupled with mussel waste that acts as fertilizer, is fueling bumper crops of cladophora across the Great Lakes. Wind and waves cause cladophora to rip off submerged rocks and other hard surfaces -- including piles of dead quagga mussel shells -- and wash onto beaches.

The problem is not unique to Sleeping Bear Dunes. But experts said the popular park west of Traverse City is one of the hardest hit areas in the Great Lakes basin.

Scientists at Michigan Tech University recently discovered 591 square miles of cladophora on the bottom of Lake Michigan. They found 20-inch thick mats of decaying cladophora just offshore from the scenic beaches at Sleeping Bear Dunes.

"That place is loaded with cladophora," Michigan Tech scientist Martin Auer said in a university publication.

Short of dredging all the quagga mussels out of Lake Michigan -- which isn’t an option -- experts said there is no solution to the cladophora crisis on the horizon.

In the meantime, Otto said visitors to Sleeping Bear Dunes should steer clear of areas where cladophora is visible in the water or washing ashore.

"I have a 3-year-old son," Otto said, "and I wouldn’t want him playing in a mat of cladophora."

Jeff Alexander is owner of J. Alexander Communications LLC and the author of "Pandora's Locks: The Opening of the Great Lakes - St. Lawrence Seaway." He’s a former staff writer for the Muskegon Chronicle.

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Brent Larson
Tue, 08/28/2012 - 9:55am
Strange. Interesting story about how we should continue to seek a meaningful solution to the problem of invading species and the growth of algae. But the lead implies a problem with the Sleeping Bear Dunes being a destination as suggested and encouraged by the GMA honor. Then further in the story, a quote says the problem being addressed is having either a negligible or non-existent effect on tourism. An unfortunately sensationalist approach to an important story which somehow muddies the water of the tourism growth that has been earned. Yes, we need to continue to work with attempt to work with Chicago and others to address this important environmental concern, but don't imply another problem that apparently doesn't exist at all and potentially discourage visitors to visit.
Tue, 08/28/2012 - 2:02pm
I think you may have misread or misinterpreted the article. The point of the article wasn't to attack the tourism industry - it merely points out that a serious problem caused by invasive species is creating a mess at one of the most beautiful places in America. To suggest that this algae is not a serious problem is horribly naive. The thousands of birds that have died from botulism poisoning due to these algae outbreaks are proof that this is a serious situation.
Tue, 08/28/2012 - 10:03am
Apparently, cladophora is edible, if you're Laotian or open-minded. And according to cladophora's wiki page, which, incidentally, has a peculiar entry similar to the claims in this article. I wonder if cladophora has 'invaded' any other body of water? Because the Great Lakes are the only entry that list it as an "invasive species."
Tue, 08/28/2012 - 4:36pm
Esch Road beach was one of our favorite beaches, too, until it became very popular with the tourists. We saw the big increase in algae starting in July, so we now go to our other favorite beaches in Sleeping Bear Dunes. There are other beaches just as beautiful and have no algae....the water is crystal clear. Sorry, though, the locations are secret! We don't need more publicity bringing in more people.
Tue, 08/28/2012 - 4:47pm
As a Biologist, I am very disappointed that your article failed to point out one of the primary causes of the algae problem: nutrient loading. Sanitary Sewer overflows, Agricultural run-off / groundwater discharges to streams, as well as storm water from cities (including lawn fertilizers). Even water temperature plays a role. Saginaw Bay has many comprehensive studies on this issue. At the same time, you highlighted a very important issue. Thank you for calling this to our attention. Please next time include a holistic picture, rather than focusing on one part of the problem. A summary of suggested actions for Policy makers can be found here, and I wouldn't have looked for this report, if it wasn't for your article. :-)
robert schiebner
Tue, 08/28/2012 - 9:09pm
Thanks to Bryan for his scientific explanation. While invading species are indeed a problem, this article is so one sided as to sound like politics. The ponds and small lakes around Saginaw, MI are experiencing an extroardinary algae buildup, and there isn't a mussel in sight. I too think this article about Sleep Bear is one sided and does not bring the other causes to attention.
Tue, 08/28/2012 - 11:26pm
So, how many years now have scientists and environmentalists been warning of the damaging effects of invasive species to the Great Lakes. As a retired DNR Fisheries Biologist, for 15 yrs. now, I remember those warnings from 30 or more years ago. But, the will of our politicians was nil, likely bought and paid for by the shipping companies and other business and industry. So now another segment of our society will be deprived of livelihoods, and others of water based recreation. We didn't need hindsight to see this coming.
Thu, 08/30/2012 - 2:18pm
I have lived in Michigan for more than half a century, and spent a lot of my childhood at Lake Michigan. I can say from personal experience that "seaweed" and algae is far, far, far less today than it was in the 60's and 70's. In the last 40 years since regulations started and have increased ever since, communities have improved waste treatment plants, farmers have improved fertilizer techniques, septic systems have been upgraded, and manufacturing along rivers and lakes have shut down. Everytime I go to Lake Michigan (which is often), I am amazed at how clean this lake is, compared to the days of my youth. Mostly it is a very positive thing. The downside is the near-extinction of industry and the resulting lowering of the standard of living for many citizens of Michigan.
Mon, 09/03/2012 - 8:34am
Sturgeon Bay is just south of Wilderness State Park at the western tip of Lake Michigan and just south of the Mackinaw Bridge. Right now the green gunk is up to 6 inches thick and 30 feet from shore to where the water starts to clear up. The smell is foul and I've seen no minnows or birds in the past week.
Jim Lang
Mon, 09/03/2012 - 11:23am
A strain of the bacterium Pseudomonas fluorescens which kills zebra and quagga mussels without harming other organisms was discovered by Dr. Daniel Molloy at the New York State Museum laboratories quite a few years ago. Commercial application was hampered by the short shelf life of the bacterium. Eventually, the shelf life problem was overcome, and the bacterium has been prepared for commercial use under the name Zequanox by the Marrone organization in California. Already shown to be effective in pipes, the product is being tested in Douglas County, Minnesota to determine its effectiveness in open water application. Recently, Senator Stabenow announced that she has arranged for the Marrone Laboratories to build a plant in Michigan for the production of Zequanox. -- Jim Lang