Thursday, August 30, 2018

Lake Erie's deadly boating season

Lake Erie’s prominence as a great place set sail and catch fish is being seen as a chief mitigating factor leading to a boating season more deadly than in any of at least the past five years.

Yet almost lost in the equation is how some marine law enforcement officials see how a five-year-old law has hogtied a desire to crack down on unsafe and illegal boating practices.

To date, Ohio has recorded eight Lake Erie-associated boating-related fatalities. That number compares to six for all of 2017. In fact, the number of such similar fatalities generally have been ramping up: in 2013 the total figure for Lake Erie-associated boating-related fatalities was three – a number that fell to two in 2014. However, that deadly tally climbed back to three in 2015 and again rose in 2016 – this time to four.

It is this growth in boating-related fatalities that most alarms local, state and federal waterways safety official, even as the boating season is starting to wind down. As late as August 25th, a boating-related drowning occurred off the Mentor Lagoons in Lake County. As of this writing the victim’s body has not yet been recovered.

Brett Trump - a lieutenant with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Parks and Watercraft with responsibilities for the Island area – believes that increased boating activity is naturally helping to drive a rise in the number of boating-related fatalities and accidents, called “incidents” in official speak.

And this growth in boating activity has some signature in the sprouting of more anglers chasing down an abundant population of fish, Trump says.

I think it’s that and also because we’ve had a lot of good weather, including an awful lot of hot days, that have resulted in more people boating,” Trump says. “That certainly has been a factor.”

So, too, Trump says, is that this year (and perhaps also because of the hot weather) more boaters seem to be jumping off their boats and into the water in order to cool off.

They’re not wearing life jackets or else they’re not anchoring their boats, which are drifting off off,” he said.

As well, Watercraft officers are seeing more “no wake” violations, which potentially puts other recreational water users at risk, says Trump.

Not being seeing as much anymore, however, are vessels striking breakwaters or boats running into each other. Each of these types of incidents have proven deadly in the past, says Trump.

We have seen, though, some unusual fatalities the past couple of years like the couple that was overcome by carbon monoxide and the young man that was electrocuted dockside,” Trump said.

Yet at least one community-based law enforcement agency with a Lake Erie marine presence suggests there exists another underlying contributor to boating incidents and even fatalities. That altruist being a state law that now prohibits marine-associated law enforcement officers from conducting random stops and boat checks on the water without probable cause.

This law – known as the “Boater Freedom Act” - was signed by Ohio Governor John Kasich in 2013.

I would definitely say there’s a correlation there, and if we could make stops and on-water boat checks without first needing probable cause it would absolutely be helpful,” said Frank Leonbruno, chief deputy for the Lake County Sheriff’s Department.

Leonbruno is in charge of the Department’s 12-person seasonal marine patrol program which operates out of the Grand River.

While a more legally active law enforcement role would be useful in helping to put a check on boating-related fatalities, Leonbruno – himself a Lake Erie angler – said the seemingly increased number of walleye fishers does not appear to be a factor in driving up boating-related incidents. At least off Lake County where yellow perch fishing is more of a boating activity engine, says Leonbruno.

We are just now seeing more perch fishermen around ‘the Hump,’” said Leonbruno, identifying the go-to perch-fishing destination off the Grand River.

It is perhaps telling as well that boaters elsewhere across the Great Lakes likewise have been demonstrating less than stellar boating behavior this summer, a Coast Guard official says.

It’s interesting because at the start of the boating season our activity was fairly normal; maybe even a little below average,” said Mike Baron.

Baron is the civilian Recreational Boating Safety Specialist for the Cleveland-based Coast Guard Ninth District, which is responsible for 47 stations on all five of the Great Lakes.

But recently there’s been an uptick on all the Great Lakes but especially on Lake Erie,” Baron said. “Maybe it’s a matter that as the boating season is winding down people are trying to get in as much time on the water as they can.”

Baron said the Great Lakes are something of a unique boating venue, too. Of the 12 million registered pleasure boats across the country, fully one-third of them call the Great Lakes their home port.

That means even though the Coast Guard’s Seventh District – largely comprised of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Puerto Rico – have an equal number of registered pleasure boats its boating season is a 12-month affair. Not so the Great Lakes where boaters storm the waters fast and furiously for only a few months and not always safely, says Baron.

Baron said too that the Coast Guard’s Ninth District is seeing an increasing number of paddle sport vessel incidents along with those pleasure boats under 26 feet. Both classes represent growing market shares which has translated into increased boating activity that has resulted in keeping the Coast Guard’s assets around the Great Lakes at peak demand.

There’s an awful lot going on here,” he said.

- By Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

Monday, August 20, 2018

Sen. Portman's Lake Erie round table focuses on positives but shuns wind farm controversary

The problems with Lake Erie did not start yesterday and they won’t be resolved overnight.” - Leonard Hubert, Ohio Executive Director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency.

OAK HARBOR: An annual “round table-style” presentation by Ohio’s junior U.S. Senator Rob Portman on August 10th largely focused on the positive that government is doing to protect and enhance Lake Erie’s water quality.

In doing so, Portman and several other round table presenters said, the lake’s commercial, recreational, fisheries, and agricultural components all will benefit – a belief that a rising tide does float all ships. The forum was held at Green Cove Condominiums, just west of the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Plant.

“We are now seeing the government and industry are finally working together,” Portman said in his opening remarks to about 50 nearly all Lake Erie Western Basin stakeholders.

Those remarks came about following the efforts of both entities to look for ways to keep so-called microbeads from entering Lake Erie, which in turn contaminate its waters. Microbeads are plastic objects smaller than than a maximum of one millimeter in diameter, and which are sloughed off from a variety of everyday products and thereby are potentially harmful to any living thing that absorbs or eats them, intentionally or otherwise.

“It’s been an important success story,” Portman said.

So too, says Portman, are the bipartisan efforts to hammer in place a better and larger Farm Bill. Those efforts include versions that have passed in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the US. Senate with a joint reconciliation group designated to fine-tune a measure that will be given to President Trump for his approving pen stroke, Portman said.

“It has more money earmarked for conservation that ever before,” Portman said of at least the Senate’s Farm Bill version. “That is also important because we can better (fiscally) work with the people who have to deal with these water quality issues on a daily basis like county soil and water conservation districts.”

Portman and Ohio Environmental Agency director Craig W. Butler tag-teamed the federal and state government’s successful browbeating and lawsuit threatening actions directed at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That process was undertaken to terminate the Corps’ annual dumping of dredged material removed from riverine shipping channels into Lake Erie’s open waters.

As a result, speakers at the federal and state levels said their respective administrative handlers “now have a good working relationship with the Corps.” That essential work-day ethic cannot be minimized, either, speakers said, given that about 20 million cubic yards of sediments are dredged annually from Ohio’s Lake Erie tributaries where such operations are conducted.

The key now, said also several of the round table speakers, is finding a place where this muck, sand, mud and soil can find a new home and perhaps become a valuable and coveted commodity.

Karl Gebhardt, the Ohio EPA’s deputy director, added that new strategies developed at helping the toxic algal blooms at Grand Lake St. Marys are going to find applications in the Maumee River. The Maumee is the chief culprit of nitrogen-bearing contamination into Lake Erie and for which the various harmful fisheries, human health, and tourism-defeating issues take up front page space every summer.

“The object is to reduce the influx of such nutrients into Lake Erie,” Gebhardt said.

Chiming in as well was Ohio State Representative Steve Arndt, R-Port Clinton, who said that a $36 million segment has been added to the state budget and specifically allocated for designated Lake Erie projects. Included in the funding’s shopping cart is money to help upgrade scientific equipment at the Ohio Sea Grant’s Stone Laboratory at Put-in-Bay, a facility dedicated on Lake Erie research.

Among the account’s other designated funding is $20 million for nutrient reduction work along with $3.5 million to be channeled for county soil and water conservation districts.

“That’s (all) actually a significant amount of money,” Arndt said.

However, not everything was addressed in such glowing words. Left out of the positive equation was any commitment to help resolve the high-profile/deeply dividing subject of placing electricity generating stations and massive wind farms both along the Lake Erie shoreline as well as in the lake itself.

Portman pretty much passed the buck by saying that the question is not a federal one, but, rather, a “local and state issue.”

Likewise, Frank Szollosi, manager of the National Wildlife Federation’s Regional Outreach Campaign, said his group “has not taken a position on it;” the “it” being Lake Erie-based wind-powered electricity-generating units.

In the end, though, said Portman, there have been more positives and gains this past year than negatives and steps back.

“We’re lucky to have such good partners like Ohio Sea Grant and the Ohio EPA,” said Portman.

- By Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

Thursday, August 16, 2018

UPDATED Ohio's controlled hunt lottery program hugely popular, long odds, but enormously fair

If you applied for the first time during the recent Ohio Division of Wildlife’s controlled hunt lottery to seek ducks at Magee Marsh consider yourself lucky, with the odds being one in 18.

Then again, if you were successful in being drawn for the highly coveted Plum Brook firearms deer hunt breath a deep sigh of relief. Your odds of doing do were one in 21.

However, don’t feel too badly about failing to get picked for the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge firearms deer hunt. In all, 2,912 applications were received for the available paltry 25 slots, placing the odds at one in 116. Put another way, the mathematics of such odds could imply that it will take 116 years before you get drawn for the hunt, or not until the year 2134.

Yes, Ohio’s controlled waterfowl and deer – as well as controlled fishing - random lottery drawing program is that popular.

“It’s not really a scientific way to look at it, but it does help to put the odds into focus,” said Andy Burt, the Wildlife Division’s licensing coordinator.

In virtually all controlled hunts – from the women’s-only to the youth-only to waterfowl to handicapped to adult deer and adult waterfowl – many, many more people apply than are slots available, Burt says.

That aforementioned Magee Marsh waterfowl hunt, for instance, attracted 2,421 applications for only 128 slots. Meanwhile, the Plum Brook deer gun hunt saw 4,636 people check off that selection but aimed for just 217 slots.

Much the same can be said for the Ravenna deer gun hunt where 4,603 people sought to be picked for only 176 slots.

In all, Burt says, 6,634 persons filled out 30,317 applications. Each of those totals were increases over 2017 when 6,280 “customers” completed 25,317 applications Burt said.

Much the same was true for the various youth hunts, Burt said as well. This year, 5,777 youths filled out 11,085 applications. In 2017 those figures were 5,484 and 11,090, respectively, Burt says

Even though the vast majority of people submitted their applications on-line – along with information about their respective credit card to pay for the $3 each hunt non-refundable application fee - the Wildlife Division still accepted paper applications and checks, Burt said.

The reason being, says Burt, is that not everyone is entering the on-ramp to the Information Superhighway.

“We are seeing an increase in paper applications, too,” Burt says. “Most of those paper applications have Burton and Middlefield addresses.”

Translated: These are two key Amish communities in Geauga County where members of that religious affiliation tend to shun modern appliances that include computers and modems.

“And we do see that many applicants tend to apply for hunts close to home,” Burt said, too.

Not to be lost is that the lottery program has undergone a prodigious shift in the way it is conducted. Back in the late 1970s, people completed a paper application and sent in a $10 refundable check. No hunting license was necessary, and it was more common than not for hopeful hunters to game the system, Burt said.

“People would put in applications in the name of their wives, kids and I suspect, their dogs,” Burt said.

And given that the applications were on paper, a physical drawing of them was conducted, challenging Florida’s hanging chad election fiasco for diabolically by-hand complexity.

Complicating matters even more, the state was required to reimburse all unsuccessful applicants their $10, requiring the services of both the Natural Resources Department along with the State Treasurer.

Thus, sometime around 2011 the Wildlife Division’s controlled hunt and fishing lottery program saw the green glowing light of computer screens with applicants (for the most part) began using their laptops, tablets and other such systems to put in a single chance for each desired hunt.

Today the system employs Microsoft software that is programmed to issue permits on a strictly random electronic basis. Other new rules that help prevent abuses require that each applicant include a current Ohio hunting license number along with a $3 non-refundable fee.

“One dollar of that fee is like the writing fee; it goes to the company which actually goes to the vendor which supplied the system,” Burt said. “The other $2 goes into the Wildlife Fund.”

This year the Wildlife Division collected a total of $60,634 from the application fees received from adult hunters, an increase from the $51,478 collected in 2017. Another $22,170 was collected from youth hunters this year verses $21,180 collected from applying youths in 2017, Burt said.

New this year is that several of the successful applicants will find that they’ve been per-assigned a hunting blind or a parking lot, the intent being to speed up getting the hunters to their respective sites.

Enough flexibility exists that should some hunting location be closed or a marsh pothole be dry that the Wildlife Division can move people around, Burt said also.

“We are seeing far fewer complaints now with the new system than we did under the old paper one,” Burt said.

Being looked at down the road for possible electronic lottery inclusion are the seemingly endless special hunts at state nature preserves, scenic rivers, and other locations where prospective hunters still must physically appear for a drawing. Such systems favor local hunters who have the advantage of driving short distances rather than someone coming from far away who may very well return home empty handed.

The issue here, however, says Burt, is that while the Wildlife Division authorizes such hunts it does not either manage them nor pockets the application fees. Those details are the purview of a different agency; including sister Ohio Department of Natural Resources Department divisions, Burt says.

“Those are some of the things that still need to be considered, but, of course, there’s always the need to improve things,” Burt said.

- By Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

Thursday, August 2, 2018

$142 million loan from Ohio EPA includes $6 million for important wetlands protection

A $5.95 million slice of an interest-bearing nearly $142 million loan from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency will go toward purchasing and protecting 736 acres in four Ohio lakeshore counties.

The Ohio EPA is making the loan to the Cleveland-based Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District which will build a 9,640-foot long, 25-foot diameter tunnel that will capture sewage and storm water, particularly during heavy storm events, the state agency says.

Encapsulated within the 30-year loan is a 2.17-percent interest requirement, and in order to reduce its obligation for that payment the Sewer District will make available the nearly $6 million to four entities for the purchase of a quartet of high valued wetland habitats.

The four parcels and their respective new owners include: the 200-acre Morgan Swamp Metzner Tract in Ashtabula County that includes 4,600 feet of Grand River frontage and 2,385 feet of tributary frontage by the Nature Conservancy ($774,000); a 66-acre parcel to be added to the existing 395-acre Sawdust Swamp Forest that includes 5,040 feet of tributary footage, also in Ashtabula County, and by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History ($347,566); a 65-acre track called “Bay Point” in Ottawa County along the Lake Erie shoreline by the Western Reserve Land Conservancy ($1.28 million); and 405 acres called the “Kitty Todd-Bettinger Restoration project in Lucas County intended to restore a wet prairie and wooded wetlands proximity to existing Nature Conservancy and Toledo Metro Parks holdings in Lucas County and likewise facilitated by the Nature Conservancy ($3.54 million).

Dina Pierce – media coordinator for the Ohio EPA – says the way in which the agency’s long-named “Water Resource Restoration Program” works is that system allowed the loan recipient (officially called a sponsor) to direct some of the interest paid on its loan to conservation-related projects. In exchange, the Sewer District obtained an 0.04 percent interest rate discount on the loan – a detail which will add up over the life of the 30-year loan, Pierce says.

The bulk of the actual loan money partially comes from various federal capitalization grants that have grown over time due to the revolving loan interest-bearing nature of the program, Pierce says also.

“For us as an agency, the program benefits both improving water quality and also water protection through the application of unique projects,” Pierce says.

Pierce says as well that funds can be used “for purchasing, protecting, restoring, and-or enhancing the properties.”

“Obviously there are other benefits such as preserving and restoring valuable wetlands, but it is unusual for one entity to sponsor four different projects. Usually it’s just one or two,” Pierce said.

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn