December 5, 2013 at 11:03 pm #1672MikeKeymaster
Special Report: Bird Die-Off
Invasive species start to take a toll
By PATRICK SULLIVAN
Record-Eagle staff writer
A loon lies dead in Otter Creek near the Lake Michigan shoreline near Esch Road. Click here for more photos. SUTTONS BAY — Ken Hyde came to work at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore headquarters one Monday in early October and expected a routine day at the office.
Then the phone calls and e-mails about dead birds on the beach poured in.
“It caused me to have to go from knowing just a little bit about botulism to having to do that research to become an expert on it in just a few days,” said Hyde, a National Park Service biologist.
Hyde presented what he learned about thousands of dead birds that washed up on the shore of Lake Michigan at a seminar this week at the Inland Seas Education Association in Suttons Bay.
Many in the audience found his larger message more disturbing: Expect mass die-offs of fish and birds in Lake Michigan to become more common as invasive species change the ecosystem of the Great Lakes.
“This die-off really isn’t of major concern to us compared to what we see coming,” Hyde said. “The wagons are circled and we’re completely surrounded and we’re just doing our best to hold on.”
Zebra mussels, an invasive species linked to the type E botulism outbreak that killed an estimated 2,900 birds on the National Lakeshore since August, also is responsible for displacing traditional food — zooplankton and diporeia — for whitefish and other small foraging fish in Lake Michigan, including alewives, the staple food of the king salmon.
Those fish are a major portion of the diet of larger fish, including top game fish such as salmon, steelhead, brown trout and walleye, which means a transformation of the kind of fish that live in the lake may be under way, Hyde said.
“You work all the way up the food chain and you get to the sports fish and they suddenly don’t have anything to eat,” Hyde said.
Another looming threat is the outbreak of viral hemorrhagic septicemia, or the VHS virus in Lake Erie, a fish-killing disease Hyde believes is likely to make its way to Lake Michigan.
“They’ve seen several hundred tons (of fish) in some places wash up on the beach,” Hyde said.
Bird deaths have also been on the rise in Lake Erie the since the start of the century.
In 2000, 583 were reported. The number rose steadily until 2004, when 2,771 deaths were reported.
The mass death of birds this year at the National Lakeshore was particularly disturbing because around 188 loons were among the dead, said Tom Kelly, executive director of the Inland Seas Education Association.
“It’s that haunting call that they have that I think is sort of a symbol of the wilderness of the lakes,” Kelly said. “If we lost those, then we’ve really lost an important part of where we live.”
Kelly said the bird deaths are troubling because no one knows how to stop them.
He said more research is needed into how to prevent botulism outbreaks.
Leelanau resident Kathie Snedeker attended the seminar. Snedeker appreciates Inland Seas for offering education about what’s happening in the Great Lakes but she said what she learned Tuesday was very disturbing.
“I’m just kind of on red alert about everything that has to do with the environment,” Snedeker said.
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