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Michigan Water Science Center



Recent changes in the food web of Lake Erie-the role of phosphorus and zebra mussels


Photograph from Ohio Lake Erie Commission

Concerns about recent declines in some important fish species and the proliferation of zebra mussels, an exotic species, have prompted a renewed interest in the role of phosphorus in Lake Erie. Zebra mussels (shown in the photograph) were introduced into Lake Saint Clair in the mid-1980s and quickly became established in Lake Erie. Because of their filter-feeding behavior, zebra mussels may be affecting fish production in Lake Erie by consuming large amounts of small invertebrates and algae, or plankton, that are the food for small fish, which in turn are the food of larger game fish like yellow perch and walleye. Recent decreases in sport- and commercial-fish harvests, proliferation of zebra mussels, and reductions in phosphorus concentrations in Lake Erie have prompted a renewed interest in how factors such as phosphorus and zebra mussels may be affecting sustainable fish harvests. Adding more phosphorus to the lake to stimulate algal productivity has been suggested, but this could result in increased eutrophication of tributary streams and a return to excessive oxygen depletion in the bottom water of the lake. Furthermore, uncertainties about the response of the lake to phosphorus additions in light of its changing food web have held back plans to apply such a solution. One thing about which everyone can agree is the remarkable ability of exotic species to cause unexpected consequences in ecosystems (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Environment Canada, 2000).



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