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BOTULISM OUTBREAK CAUSES MEETING OF MINDS

Botulism concerns brought a few bright biologists to Woodlawn Beach State Park on Tuesday.

Sea Grant officials Helen Domske from New York State and Eric Obert from Pennsylvania organized a conference of experts from states and Canadian provinces bordering Lake Erie. Each speaker presented updates and described ongoing and future studies focused on various strains of botulism that have been fatal to fish and aquatic bird life, particularly since 1999.

"We at Sea Grant began these botulism workshops, seminars and conferences in 1999 when outbreaks resulting in unusual numbers of fish and bird life began appearing on beaches around the lower Great Lakes," Obert said.

Origins of botulism can be sketchy, but Obert factors out mankind-generated pollutants as a cause. "The tremendous influx of exotic species in recent years has exacerbated (intensified) the amounts and types of botulisms appearing in the food web, which has resulted in increased fish and bird mortalities."

Kenneth Roblee, Department of Environmental Conservation Region 9 senior wildlife biologist, reported water bird mortality high in 2004, especially common loons, but fish mortality relatively low in New York State waters of Lake Erie. Surveyors walking beaches such as Evangola State Park averaged 8-16 loons each outing during the fall migration period.

Also, Roblee noted a high number of long-tailed ducks, once know as "old squaws," appearing in the Lewiston area of the lower Niagara River. "Lewiston draws the highest concentration of long-tailed ducks in New York State," he added.

Fish kills were remarkably low in 2004, with 25 smallmouth bass and 10 steelhead trout found along the Lake Erie shoreline. Similarly low fish mortality reports came in for Lake Ontario.

Jeff Robinson, with the Wildlife Service of Environment Canada, pointed to the east end of Lake Ontario as the greatest concentration of aquatic bird deaths. "We've found bird kills are high where numbers of round gobies are high," Robinson said.

Public reaction in Canada depends on when fish and bird carcasses wash ashore. "We get most responses to botulism fears when birds and fish appear on beaches during fall migration periods that occur during fall holidays and weekends," he noted.

Pennsylvania's shoreline saw mild fish mortality, aquatic biologist Jim Grazio told listeners. Presque Isle Bay near Erie, which attracts an abundance of fish and aquatic bird life, draws about four million visitors each year.

"As in previous years, the fish, mainly sheepshead and smallmouth bass, began appearing early in the season and dead birds, mainly loons, peaked in early November," Grazio said.

Dan Malloy, a researcher with the New York State Education Department Museum in Albany, offered some promising controls for exotic mussels that have been known carriers of type-E and other strains of botulism.

"Controlling mussels is a rough task, but we might some day be able to do it with natural products," Malloy said. He has been working on means to control invasive aquatic species since 1991.

He pointed to a selected bacterium on which black flies feed and die. He applied similar research to controlling mussels, testing more than 700 bacterial strains over a two-year period with no success. Then, when the studies were near an end, he found "pseudomonas fluorescens, a common, natural bacterium, produced enough cells to kill mussels.

The downside of this discovery is that it would take concentrations of a thousand-plus more than its natural presence to kill mussel colonies that gather on power and water plant intakes in the lower Great Lakes. Malloy also has to study further the effects this dosage would have on other aquatic life.

Domske encouraged anglers and all enjoying waterways aboard boats or walking the shoreline to let agencies know when they sight numbers of fish or bird kills.

Sea Grant provides information sheets on how to handle bird and fish carcasses suspected to be the result of botulism outbreaks.

Log on to any state Sea Grant Web site for information about botulism, eating fish, background development, ongoing research, the April 5 Woodlawn Beach State Park Conference reports and other concerns. Go to: www.nyseagrant.org. The Buffalo office can be reached at 645-3610.
e-mail: wille@pce.net