Watershed: How Lake Erie Became the Walleye Capital

Jul 1, 2019

In the early 1970s there was a cooperative effort between the United States and Canada to lower the amount of pollutants entering the Great Lakes. 

Around that same time a young northeast Ohio native was beginning a four-decade career at Ohio State University focused on cleaning up Lake Erie. 

This week in our series Watershed, we’re looking at the body of water that ties our industrial rivers together.

We talk with Jeff Reutter, retired director of Ohio State's Stone Lab who's now working as a special advisor. We met him at Cleveland harbor to talk about his work, which began in the early 1970s.  

The right time
"The clean water act and the Great Lakes water quality agreement, these were things that were all occurring at that point in time," Reutter said. "We were all enthused, we were motivated. And there were a young bunch of us, I will say young guys at that point, you know that were ready to charge out, you know, and conquer the world."

Jeff Reutter retired as director of Ohio State's Stone Lab in Lake Erie in 2015. He now serves as a special advisor.
Credit CLAIRE TAYLOR / WKSU

In one of his presentations, Reutter has a photo of Lake Erie from 1971. The photo shows an algae bloom.  "The problems that we're having right now, unfortunately, are exactly the same that we had back in the 1970s. We solved the problem in those days by reducing the amount of phosphorus coming in. And that's exactly what we have to do today," Reutter said.

Reutter said back then, the source of the problem was sewage treatment plants. The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District and other sewage treatment plants have been working to improve facilities and reduce the amount of sewage getting into the lake. "They reduced the load by 60% and the lake responded," Reutter said.

The problem resurfaces
"About the mid 1990s, we started seeing the amount of phosphorus increase again," he said. But the source of the problem this time is agricultural runoff." So instead of regulating and dealing with a dozen sewage treatment plants, you have about 20,000 farmers that you can't regulate, and you need to get them to voluntarily change practices or maybe pay them and give them incentives to change. And so far, we've been unsuccessful in making that happen," Reutter said.   

Reutter feels an urgency to address the situation and is working to do so in his position as special advocate. But he said, it's "very challenging." 

"We literally know enough right now on what needs to be done. We have to figure out how to help the farmers take the actions that are needed," he said. "And that means stop applying too much. That's not too hard if they're paying for commercial fertilizer, but not applying too much is a big challenge for people who are putting on animal manure, because in most cases, they're calling it fertilizer, but in reality it's waste disposal." 

Tireless advocacy
Throughout his career Reutter has worked to make people aware of the problems that Lake Erie faced and the efforts to improve the water. "One of the things that we started in 1982 was a congressional day on Lake Erie," he said. The goal was to help them make better lake-related decisions. State lawmakers expressed interested so he welcomed them to visit Stone Laboratories as well. "And in 2005, we added a coastal county commissioner and mayor day to it. We did a special day for science writers, we did a special day for charter captains. So it was a case of raising everyone’s understanding of how the lake worked, the value of the lake to the state of Ohio. And the fact that it was you know, our most valuable natural resource, and it's our lake," Reutter said.  

He also worked to acquire a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to establish the Ohio Sea Grant program, which happened in August 1978. He said that has been an important asset in helping address the lake's problems. 

"Prior to that we had a Center for Lake Erie Area Research (CLEAR), which was Ohio State University's response to the burning of the Cuyahoga. And we had Stone Laboratory out at Put in Bay, the oldest freshwater biological field station in the country. When we got the Sea Grant program, it gave us the third component, that outreach or extension component. So now we did research, we did education, we did the outreach; we could get to the public, we could get to state agencies and the congressional delegation. And I could award grants from Sea Grant to every college and university in the state," Reutter said. 

Lake Erie became the best example in the world of ecosystem recovery. And really the best example to be able to show people that it isn't the economy or the environment, you can have both.

The walleye capital
Acknowledging the accomplishments, Reutter notes that there's still work to be done. But the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie have come a long way. "[Lake Erie has] become the walleye capital of the world," he said. "We developed in 1976, a quota management system for walleye you put the quota management system together with habitat improvements, and the harvest of walleye from the Ohio waters of Lake Erie went from 112,000 in 1975 to over 5 million by the mid 1980s. And along with it tourism. Lake Erie became the best example in the world of  ecosystem recovery. And really the best example to be able to show people that it isn't the economy or the environment, you can have both. And that's what we got out of Lake Erie."

Favorite Lake Erie location
Reutter's years of work on the lake have left him with a number of favorite Lake Erie locales, but there is one spot where he loves to take people who've never been out on Lake Erie. It's called Lookout Point on Gibraltar Island, the highest point on any of the Erie islands. "They usually say 'I had no idea that there was anything like this in Ohio!'"