It’s been 40 years since The Ohio State University’s Center for Lake Erie Area Research (CLEAR) was first recognized as Ohio’s home for the National Sea Grant College Program, whose dedication to supporting the practical use and conservation of coastal, marine and Great Lakes resources to create a sustainable economy and environment has helped coastal and Great Lakes communities for over 50 years.
The Ohio Sea Grant College Program was established in 1978, with $128,000 worth of funding that had to cover all aspects of what a Sea Grant Program was supposed to do.
“The National Sea Grant College Program, when they funded us, called us a coherent program because we had everything that a Sea Grant Program was supposed to have, the three pieces of research, education and outreach as well as an overall communications component,” remembered Dr. Jeff Reutter, who had been with the program from the beginning until his retirement in 2017.
That initial funding covered the establishment of a Marine Advisory Service (today’s Extension program), along with one research project on creating a market for freshwater drum for commercial fishermen and an education effort that would lead to the development of Great Lakes curriculum lessons still inspiring educators today.
Today, Ohio Sea Grant manages a multi-million-dollar research program, with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the State of Ohio, The Ohio State University and funders ranging from private foundations to the Ohio Department of Higher Education. The team oversees operations and education opportunities at Stone Lab, the program’s research, education and outreach facility on Gibraltar Island, just off Put-in-Bay on Lake Erie’s South Bass Island, and five Extension educators along the coastline bring Lake Erie knowledge directly to the communities most affected by it.
Over the past 40 years, Ohio Sea Grant has accomplished a number of milestones, all of them important to making Ohio a thriving place to call home.
It’s a story everyone who spends time in Cleveland hears eventually: in 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught on fire. It wasn’t the first time the extremely polluted river had burned, but increased media attention and a shift in public sentiment towards environmental protection meant it was the last. The Cuyahoga River fire inspired legislation like the Clean Water Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and raised awareness about the health of Lake Erie and its tributaries to the point where establishing Ohio’s Sea Grant program became a no-brainer.
Over the next 16 years, newly created national, state and local efforts to clean up the lake went so well that Lake Erie’s reputation quickly changed from North America’s Dead Sea to the Walleye Capital of the World. By 1985, the lake had recovered so much that two graduate students who were studying under Ohio Sea Grant’s education coordinator Dr. Rosanne Fortner wrote to Dr. Seuss to ask him to update his book The Lorax. The line they objected to read “They’ll walk on their fins and get woefully weary / In search of some water that isn’t so smeary. / I hear things are just as bad up in Lake Erie.”
Seuss sent an apology to the students, and promised to update the line in future editions of the book. “I should no longer be saying bad things about a body of water that is now, due to great civic and scientific effort, the happy home of smiling fish,” Seuss wrote in his response. “Unfortunately, the purification of texts, like that of lakes, cannot be accomplished overnight. The objectionable line will be removed from future editions.”
Today, work to restore the Cuyahoga River continues under the 1987 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the U.S. Clean Water Act. The agreement declared the 43 dirtiest rivers and harbors in the Great Lakes watershed as Areas of Concern (AOCs) and put processes in place to address the specific issues affecting each river. Ohio Sea Grant Extension agent Dr. Scott Hardy chairs the public outreach subcommittee of the Cuyahoga River Area of Concern Advisory Committee, which recently had cause to celebrate.
”There were ten total beneficial use impairments (BUIs) when the river was first designated as an AOC, and of those ten, we’ve just in the past few months had two delisted,” Hardy said. “Those two are degradation of aesthetics and restrictions on recreation and public access, and they were officially removed from the list in late 2017. We’re also hoping to get restrictions on fish consumption removed in the next few months.”
Hardy continues to work with the Cuyahoga River AOC Advisory Committee, a collaboration with a number of other local and regional agencies and non-profit organizations, on removal of the remaining eight BUIs. Their goal is to have the river completely delisted as an Area of Concern by the end of 2025.
Farther east, another river was also in desperate need of some help. The Ashtabula River, which flows into Lake Erie just 15 miles from the Pennsylvania border, was also declared an Area of Concern by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1987. Unregulated industry on the riverbanks had led to beneficial use impairments like restrictions on fish consumption and loss of wildlife habitat, and the surrounding community was feeling those impacts.
“None of this would have happened without a really long-term commitment by the Ashtabula River Partnership.”
Dr. Jeff Reutter
Now-retired Ohio Sea Grant Extension Program Leader Frank Lichtkoppler was a major player in the 30-year, $85 million cleanup project that restored the Ashtabula River and led to the removal of three BUIs in 2014. Lichtkoppler focused on gathering information – both scientific facts and public opinion – and presenting it to public officials and the Ashtabula River Partnership managing the cleanup effort, informing their decision making with knowledge about potential economic and environmental impacts.
“None of this would have happened without a really long-term commitment by the Ashtabula River Partnership, and there were very few people who were with it the whole time,” Reutter said. “Frank was one of those key people, always trying to deflect recognition, but often serving as the glue to hold everything together and keep it moving.”
In 2008, a major dredging project removed 635,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediments – more than 190 Olympic-sized swimming pools’ worth – from Ashtabula harbor, making it one of the cleanest, deepest harbors in Lake Erie. Along with fish habitat restoration a little upriver, the dredging project represented a major step towards removal of the last three beneficial use impairments and the area’s removal from the list of Areas of Concern.
“A lot of people worked very long and very hard to see the dredging completed,” said Lichtkoppler. “It was all the Ashtabula River Partnership members working together that made this happen, and Ohio Sea Grant was one of the founding partners of the Ashtabula River Partnership.”
Ohio Sea Grant also helped develop a baseline to measure the economic activity resulting from the delisting. Prior to dredging of the Ashtabula harbor, staff collected data on local boaters, marinas and small businesses in the harbor area, and Extension agent Jill Bartolotta is currently working with the advisory committee to compare that data to new information from after the final restoration was completed.
Sportfishing is a billion-dollar industry in Ohio, and making sure it continues to thrive has always been an important concern for Ohio Sea Grant. While fishing had always attracted visitors along some parts of the lakeshore, other areas didn’t have much in the way of coastal tourism, and Extension agents’ advisory boards were vocal about wanting to address that issue.
Reefs tend to attract fish, and many of the already established popular fishing spots had naturally occurring underwater rock formations that gave fish shelter and a place to hunt and spawn. Research showed that just about anything sunk in a body of water would act like a reef, and artificial reefs were being built across the world. Ohio Sea Grant, lead by Extension agent Dave Kelch, decided that a collection of artificial reefs would be the best way to address a lack of fishing tourism near the Cel veland shore.
“We didn’t want to sink boats, because we didn’t want anything that would put additional pollution into Lake Erie,” Reutter said. “We came up with a plan to construct artificial reefs from clean brick, rock and concrete rubble.”
Donations of material came in from a number of places around town: the City of Lakewood was tearing out curbs as part of road construction, a stone company donated pieces that couldn’t be used commercially, and when the City of Cleveland tore down the old Browns stadium, much of the brick and concrete ended up part of the project. Overall, the material donations added up to several hundred thousand dollars. To make those tax deductions possible, the permits for the reefs were issued in the name of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, one of the major partners on the project.
After some experiments to determine the best reef construction type and location, between 1984 and 2000, Ohio Sea Grant and a wide range of partners constructed ten artificial reefs near the Cleveland shore, between Lorain and Euclid. The reefs increase fishing opportunities in an area that’s easy to access from marinas throughout the city, while avoiding problem areas like shipping lanes or too-deep waters that don’t provide ideal fish habitat.
Subsequent studies showed that the reefs attract 12-66 times as many fish as the surrounding areas, and are paying for themselves 2.75 times over every year. It’s an impact that will continue for as long as there are fish in Lake Erie, and anglers who want to catch them.
Lake Erie Watersnakes LEWS) are native to the Lake Erie islands, mostly living on bottom-dwelling fishes and the occasional mudpuppy, a large aquatic salamander. An increase in the islands’ human population, and human persecution because the snakes were confused with venomous snakes – it doesn’t help that they’re often ill-tempered and quick to bite when cornered – led to the snakes being listed as federally threatened and state endangered in 1999.
Dr. Kristin Stanford, now Stone Lab’s education and outreach coordinator, first came to the lab as a graduate student and quickly became instrumental in the Lake Erie Watersnake recovery plan. Developed in 2003, the plan focused on habitat protection and restoration, as well as an extensive education campaign to teach island residents and visitors to “Respect the Snake” and encouraging peaceful coexistence.
“Our outreach and education program was probably the most challenging but also the most fun, especially for me since I got to do a lot of it,” Stanford said. “Through our conservation program, through doing interactive programs with snakes of all species here on the islands, we were able to change people’s minds and attitudes to the point where we determined that they were no longer a threat.”
The snakes also got some support from an unexpected place: a new food source. In the 1990s, round gobies invaded Lake Erie from the Black and Caspian Seas, and quickly began showing up in the Lake Erie Watersnake’s diet, to the point where the snakes’ diet consists of about 90 percent round gobies now.
“Normally, when you think about how an invasive species might affect a threatened species, you would think that interaction might be really harmful,” Stanford explained. “What we’ve been able to show with our research is that since the watersnakes have been consuming round gobies, they’ve increased their maximum body size and their reproductive rate as well as their survival and population growth rates.”
In 2011, the goals laid out in the recovery plan were met, making LEWS the 23rd species to ever be removed from the Federal List of Threatened and Endangered Species. Stanford, her Stone Lab students and a group of dedicated partners and volunteers continue to monitor the snake’s population on the islands, including an annual snake census called Nerodio in June that often brings back Stone Lab alumni for a week of collecting, measuring and tagging snakes.
Stanford also always takes advantage of outreach opportunities that allow her to introduce more people to the species, including a 2006 appearance on the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs that has since aired to more than 15 million people and was voted one of the audience’s Top Ten favorite episodes for a special celebrating the show’s 150th episode.
The Ohio Clean Marinas Program is a proactive partnership among Ohio Sea Grant, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) and the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association (LEMTA) designed to encourage marinas and boaters to use simple solutions to keep Ohio’s waterways clean. The program, along with a companion Clean Boater program, promotes environmental stewardship and assists in protecting clean water and fresh air for future boaters.
Started in 2003, the program focuses on actions marinas and boaters can take to protect the waterways they use. While the original program only covered the Lake Erie watershed, an expansion in 2015 brought it to the whole state.
Partners were essential to the Clean Marinas Program from the very beginning, starting with a meeting between Ohio Sea Grant, ODNR and LEMTA at the Lake Erie Nature and Science Center in Cleveland in late 2002.
“We were very pleased to be asked to lead the program, but it was really a partnership between ODNR, LEMTA and us, and that partnership continues to this day,” Reutter added. Much of the initial program funding came from ODNR, NOAA and LEMTA, with matching support from The Ohio State University and Ohio Sea Grant.
To continue recruiting marinas to the program – and to keep things interesting for the marinas that have been around for a while – the Clean Marinas team is developing a new tiered certification system that will recognize marinas going above and beyond the baseline requirements and giving currently certified marinas new goals to work towards.
The Clean Boater Program works with boaters who may not dock at marinas, or who may simply want to do their part to keep their recreation environment clean for their kids. Their pledge focuses on small actions they can take, such as not littering, keeping fuel from polluting water at fueling stations, and preventing invasive species from hitching a ride by cleaning, draining and drying their boats before moving from one body of water to another.
In 1988, some routine maintenance on the floating docks at Stone Lab revealed something odd: some mussels that hadn’t been seen in Lake Erie before. It pretty quickly turned out that those mussels were historic, in the most urgent sense of the word: they were the first recorded instance of zebra mussels found in the lake.
Ohio Sea Grant wasted no time in responding. Within a month, Ohio State researcher Dr. David Garton had received funding to study the invasive species and document its spread from those first few mussels to reaching densities of 30,000 individuals per square meter just a year later.
Because zebra mussels tend to grow on just about any hard surface, they quickly became an issue for water treatment plants as well. “In 1989, the city of Monroe, Michigan totally lost their water supply several times during the winter because the zebra mussels would clog the water intake enough to create frazil ice,” said Reutter. That ice forms when very cold water flows quickly through a narrow opening – in this case, zebra mussels had colonized the trash racks meant to keep large debris out of the water intake, blocking most of the opening and causing it to freeze up completely.
A grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helped Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab establish a zebra mussel testing center, with the goal of identifying substances that could be used to control the invasive mussels. “Dr. Susan Fisher, an aquatic toxicologist in Ohio State’s entomology department, did some absolutely fabulous work finding out that chlorine and potassium could be used to kill zebra mussels,” Reutter said. “This was incredibly important because almost all water intakes already had permits to use chlorine to prevent algae and things from growing in their system, so they simply had to modify their existing permits.”
Working with their congressional delegation, Ohio Sea Grant staff were also instrumental to the passing of the first Nonindigenous Species Control Act, which began to regulate when and where ocean-going freight vessels could release ballast water and establishes funding for invasive species research, education and technical assistance programs to prevent spread of current invasives and introduction of new non-native species to the United States.
Stone Lab’s Lake Erie Science Field Trip program gives students in grades 5-12, as well as college students and adult groups, the chance to be Lake Erie scientists for a day, taking water quality measurements and trawling for fish on a research boat and examining their finds back in the laboratory. The field trip program actually started with college courses from Ohio State departments like engineering and biological sciences, led by Reutter, to supplement courses designed for power plant engineers.
“I offered the first one of those in 1973, and the program sort of limped along until we hired Fred Snyder as our Extension agent,” said Reutter. “I gave him the responsibility of expanding that workshop program, and it got a lot bigger under Fred’s leadership and guidance.”
So big, in fact, that it interfered with Snyder’s Extension duties. “Fred simply didn’t have time to do all these field trips at Stone Lab and still maintain a Sea Grant Extension program, so we hired John Hageman in 1987,” said Reutter.
At the time, about 1,100 people were going through the program each year, an eclectic mix of students, workshop participants and legislative staffers, all interested in learning more about Lake Erie. Today, the Lake Erie Science Field Trip Program has grown to 8,000 participants a year, with the majority coming from elementary, middle and high schools across Ohio and eastern Michigan.
“The field trip was an outstanding experience,” said Jackie Conry, who teaches science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) classes at St. Mary Catholic School in Vermilion and took her fifth-graders on a Stone Lab field trip earlier this spring. “A lot of times teachers are trying to find that real-world connection and I feel like Stone Lab really offers that. For the students to take the knowledge they gained in the classroom and see it happening in a real-world scenario, that was a great connection for them to see.”
However, the field trip program continues to include elected and appointed government officials through events like Legislature Day and Decision Makers Day, which help officials better understand critical problems and opportunities impacting Lake Erie. The events have resulted in new and modified legislation to protect the lake, a ban on algae-fueling phosphorus in detergent, new state agency offices, continued state budget support for Ohio Sea Grant, and recognition that Sea Grant staff are a resource for elected officials to understand and solve issues of critical importance to their constituents.
Today, the Lake Erie Science Field Trip Program has grown to 8,000 participants a year, with the majority coming from elementary, middle and high schools across Ohio and eastern Michigan.
One of those issues is tourism: travel is a $35 billion industry in Ohio, and the eight counties bordering Lake Erie account for about one-third of that business. That’s a big impact on both local economies and the environment, and Ohio Sea Grant research and outreach helps businesses and local governments to balance a thriving economy with protecting the landscape that visitors come to enjoy.
Ohio Sea Grant also manages visitor experiences that create demand for travel themselves. The Aquatic Visitors Center (AVC) on South Bass Island, run by Ohio Sea Grant in partnership with the ODNR Division of Wildlife, educates almost 15,000 guests annually on the ecology and history of the lake, and Stone Lab and the South Bass Island Lighthouse offer periodic science and history tours during the summer months, when more than 800,000 guests visit South Bass Island and Put-in-Bay.
Stone Lab’s summer college courses continue the tradition of hands-on education by immersing students in Lake Erie science, often quite literally. All classes include at least some field trips, where students go out in the field to collect samples and experience the ecosystems they’re studying first-hand.
Education has been at the heart of Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab since the beginning. Remember that very first research funding? It went to Dr. Vic Mayer in Ohio State’s College of Education, and brought on Dr. Rosanne Fortner as a post-doctoral researcher, kicking off a decades-long career that established Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab as a leader in Great Lakes education.
“In terms of Great Lakes education, she’s definitely known as the Queen of the Great Lakes,” said Lyndsey Manzo, Ohio Sea Grant’s education specialist, who completed her master’s program under Fortner and now teaches educator courses at Stone Lab herself. “Rosanne is always on the cutting edge of what’s coming in education, and always was.”
Fortner developed Ohio Sea Grant’s first climate change curriculum in the late 1990s, before climate change even became a concern for educators. That climate change curriculum was updated in 2013 with new data, updated science education standards and a new look, and is still available for teachers to use. Ohio Sea Grant’s Global Change, Local Impact webinar series on the effects of climate change in the Great Lakes, and an associated iTunes U learning program that reached more than 70,000 people, also brought those lessons to an international audience.
Dr. Rosanne Fortner developed Ohio Sea Grant’s first climate change curriculum in the late 1990s, before climate change even became a concern for educators.
“Through all the years that she has been doing Great Lakes and marine and aquatic education, even though she’s been in the informal world, she’s always stayed on top of what was happening in K-12 formal education to make sure that the professional development that she was providing was top-notch for teachers,” Manzo added.
That emphasis on relevant education continues to permeate every form of teaching at Stone Lab and Ohio Sea Grant; whether it’s a professional development course for educators or a talk at a fishing club, the focus is on showing people how Lake Erie science applies to their lives, how their actions can impact the lake, and how a healthy Lake Erie makes for better living all across Ohio.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab have been a pillar of Lake Erie science, education and outreach for a long time, but the program has no plans to slow down anytime soon. With problems like harmful algal blooms and climate change impacts on the region an ongoing concern, and potential issues like plastics and pharmaceuticals pollution and new invasive species always on the horizon, staff will continue to work hard to make sure Lake Erie, its inhabitants and the surrounding communities are healthy and thriving for decades to come.
“Thirty years ago, the threat posed by zebra mussels showed that innovative, collaborative approaches are needed to help solve the critical issues Lake Erie faces. Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab were able to lead the charge then, and continued to do so whenever new problems emerged,” said Dr. Christopher Winslow, director of Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab. “Today, we’re addressing the problem of harmful algal blooms through partnered funding efforts like the Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiative, funded through the Ohio Department of Higher Education, that continues our tradition of bringing together scientists and agencies throughout Ohio to help solve an issue. That’s what Ohio Sea Grant has always been about.”