Great Lakes
Botulism in Lakes Erie and Ontario

The situation

For bird watchers, the chance to see a common loon is exciting. In the Fall 2000, though, their excitement turned to disappointment as they found many of these beautiful birds washed up along the New York shore of Lake Erie. And loons weren’t the only dead birds found in the Lakes. Hundreds of mergansers, grebes, mallard ducks, ring-billed and herring gulls, and other dead waterfowl littered the shoreline.

What was the cause of death for these birds and fish that were beginning to wash up on Lake Erie's shore in late 2000? And, as Sea Grant announced in July 2002, on Lake Ontario's shore?

These birds were killed by the bacterial disease botulism. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the agency in charge of collecting, counting and conducting pathology on the birds, more than 5,000 birds were impacted by the outbreak in 2000 alone.

The response

Responding to fish and bird die-offs along the shores of Lake Erie from 1999-2001, the staffs of New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio Sea Grant wanted to understand the extent of the die-offs, gather scientific information and explore the ecological impacts of these botulism outbreaks. In order to achieve these goals, the Sea Grant programs realized a need to create a functioning network of involved agencies and individuals and organize a workshop that would get this diverse binational group working together.

Working from the success of the first conference on avian botulism held in 2001, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio Sea Grant worked together to co-sponsor a workshop that was designed to develop a research agenda to deal with this ecological problem.

In late February 2002, a workshop on "Botulism in Lake Erie" was held in Buffalo, New York. This workshop brought together 100 researchers, fishery and wildlife biologists, resource managers, and agency representatives. The goal was to share information from the American and Canadian shores and to develop a research agenda for future efforts.

The original conference, held in January 2001, was co-sponsored by New York and Pennsylvania Sea Grant and was held in Erie, Pennsylvania. This inaugural workshop brought together more than 60 researchers, fishery and wildlife biologists, resource managers and agency representatives. Unlike the follow-up February '02 meeting, though, the focus was mainly on avian botulism, since at that time most mortalities were occurring in fish-eating birds like loons and mergansers.

Organizers of the January '01 gathering wanted to determine the extent of the avian botulism problem based on geography and environmental conditions that existed during the outbreaks. Although organizers realized that the first conference was premature from a data standpoint, they wanted to create a functioning network of scientists who would collaborate on research issues and respond to future outbreaks.

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