Story by Colin Hanner & Miranda Willson | Staff Writers
As one of the most fished lakes in New York — and a recreational hub for Chautauquans — Chautauqua Lake has seen its fair share of use. But when blue and green sludge-like goop coated the lake’s surface at the tail-end of each season for the past few years, officials prohibited Chautauquans from swimming and setting sail.
This goop, formally known as harmful algal blooms, did not surface this season until just last week. HABs, which are specific species of algae that grow rapidly and produce harmful toxins, typically form during the summer in calm, nutrient-rich bodies of water, such as Chautauqua Lake.
On Friday, officials closed Children’s, Pier and Heinz beaches after finding elevated HAB levels. University Beach remained open.
Swimming during an HAB can lead to rashes, skin and eye irritation, nausea and other ailments, which is why Chautauqua and other communities around the lake close beaches during a bloom. It is recommended that those who choose to swim thoroughly wash after being exposed to HABs.
Jennifer Flanagan, program director at Boys’ and Girls’ Club, had to alter clubbers’ schedules around the lake’s health in past years, as campers were shipped to the Turner Community Center to use the pool there rather than swim in the lake.
“[The HABs] were nothing we had to deal with before about a half-a-dozen years ago,” Flanagan said.
At the Sports Club, HABs prevented boat rentals for two to three weeks last season. The stench of algae clinging to boat slips and docks was often unbearable, said Trevor North, a third-year employee at the Sports Club. Fishing line rentals, however, were not affected.
Because HABs and algal blooms generally occur on the surface of the water, they usually do not harm the fish’s health, said Craig Robbins, a local fishing guide, recreation writer and official at the Chautauqua County Visitors’ Bureau. Blooms also provide shade for the fish, allowing them to edge closer to the surface of the water, therefore making them easier to catch.
Don Staszczyk, tournament director for the Chautauqua Lake Bassmasters, agreed HABs do not affect the quality of fishing. Both Staszczyk and Robbins have noticed fishermen believe their catch increases during HABs.
“For anglers, an algae bloom really isn’t a problem. In fact, we prefer it,” Robbins said. “When the sun is high in the sky and the light goes into the water, the fish don’t like light, so they struggle back into docks and vegetation. But the algae bloom is kind of like sunglasses. It dims that light so the fish will come closer to the surface.”
The absence of blooms this summer continues to stump Chautauqua County officials.
County Legislator Pierre Chagnon said the county is unsure of all the factors that lead to HABs and what is different about the lake this summer compared to the past several summers. He speculated the actions of property owners, sewage treatment plants along the lake, local municipalities and farms in the watershed could have helped the situation. As the problem of HABs and excessive nutrients in the lake became more well-known, more groups and individuals have taken steps in the past two years to reduce phosphorus inputs, one of the key nutrients that accelerates algal growth.
Additionally, because HABs generally occur in warm, slow-moving, eutrophic waters, he said the lake may not have been calm enough this year, or heavy rains in June could have reduced the water temperature.
The county hopes to better understand the problem once they obtain the results of lake studies underway this summer, Chagnon said.
“The Chautauqua Lake Association is again, as they have for many years, participating in the Citizens Statewide Lake Assessment Program that is managed by the [New York State Department of Environmental Conservation],” he said. “That data collection is vital to our understanding.”