New Tool for the Tackle Box: An Algal Bloom Tracker

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

An angler casts his line out into Lake Erie near an algal bloom. Credit: Jeff Reutter
An angler casts his line out into Lake Erie near an algal bloom. Credit: Jeff Reutter

Water condition forecasts developed by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) and University of Michigan’s Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR) could help recreational anglers, charter boat businesses and other folks around Lake Erie prepare in advance for algal blooms.

Since 2014, GLERL and CIGLR have tested an experimental harmful algal bloom (HAB) tracker program on the GLERL website, designed primarily around the needs of drinking water managers. NOAA’s Lake Erie HAB forecasting bulletin, which also launched experimentally in 2014, was bumped up to a full-fledged operational project in June.

Recent research by Devin Gill, stakeholder engagement specialist with CIGLR, says that the tracker tool could be made more helpful for the recreational fishing industry. Gill held focus group sessions and met with charter boat captains and recreational anglers from Wyandotte, Michigan, to Erie, Pennsylvania to gather input.

“Everyone agreed that HABs are gross, stinky, and that they don’t enjoy fishing in them,” Gill said. “That was the primary reason they prefer to not fish in them and to try and find clear water.”

Going into HABs means getting algae slime on a boat and having to go slower in the water. Fish also can accumulate microcystins, a toxin associated with harmful algal blooms.

The HAB tracker uses color coding on maps to indicate where blooms are, how severe they are and where they are likely to move in the coming days. Gill said most anglers responded positively to the tool, but the information was somewhat abstract for her focus groups, and additional information is needed to help anglers interpret what the color coding means. One idea being considered is adding a photo reference guide to show what each color means on the ground, though nothing has been decided yet. She also found that more work was needed to get the word out about the tracker: of 41 participants, only 11 had heard of the tracker, and only four had tried to use it.

Using the HAB tracker program, a forecast image from Aug. 18, 2016, was taken that shows a harmful algal bloom on western Lake Erie with arrows indicating the expected surface water movement in coming days, which would influence where the bloom moves and spreads. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Using the HAB tracker program, a forecast image from Aug. 18, 2016, was taken that shows a harmful algal bloom on western Lake Erie with arrows indicating the expected surface water movement in coming days, which would influence where the bloom moves and spreads. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Gill said researchers are exploring additional information to include, like a photo library of the blooms at varying concentrations, to help anglers and boaters interpret conditions and whether they want to go on the water. Beyond that, more outreach is necessary to build trust with managers and researchers. She said several participants weren’t aware of efforts to try and deal with the causes of the blooms, and getting a better idea of the wants and needs of users can make for a stronger forecast program. Since the recreational fishing industry is worth US$2 billion a year in Ohio alone, it’s important to local economies that the forecast be helpful to anglers.

“I think the HAB tracker has the potential to show people that even though there’s a bloom occurring on Lake Erie, there are pockets of clear water,” Gill said. “The bloom isn’t everywhere – it’s not blanketing the lake unless it’s a bad season.”

Gill added that while CIGLR is working to develop a formal way for the public to give feedback and thoughts on the HAB tracker, in the meantime they can contact her at deving@umich.edu.

As of June 2, NOAA has noted that since May was a wet month in the region, the amount of phosphorus washing into western Lake Erie from the Maumee River has exceeded the amounts seen in mild bloom years. There is uncertainty regarding the final amount of phosphorus that will end up in Lake Erie, which in turn feeds the algal blooms in the late summer. NOAA releases regular bulletins updating HAB conditions and forecasts on the lake.

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.

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