2017-06-01 / Front Page

Associations tackle swimmer’s itch

Using $250,000 allocated
By Amy Hubbell
Of The Enterprise staff

Homeowners on three county lakes have new tools at their disposal to scratch the problem of swimmer’s itch.

The Glen Lake Association (GLA), Lake Leelanau Lake Association and Lime Lake Association are part of the 24-member Michigan Swimmer’s Itch Partnership (MSIP), which is aimed at fighting swimmer’s itch.

The itch is caused by a microscopic parasite that lives in waterfowl such as duck or geese. Locally, the merganser duck has been identified as the main carrying culprit.

“Our overall goal is to limit the number of broods that come to the lake in future years,” said Rob Karner, GLA biologist.

Here’s how the life cycle works: The parasite lays eggs that pass from birds into their feces. If the feces lands in the water, the eggs hatch and larvae go looking for a specific snail to infect. Those larvae multiply in the snail and then are released back into the water in search of a bird to infest.

But lacking their preferred host, the microscopic worms burrow into human skin and die, which in many people results in an uncomfortable itchy rash.

Some parts of Leelanau’s inland lakes are worse than others for swimmer’s itch.

“In certain areas of the north lake, it’s very bad,” said Nick Fleezanis, president of the Lake Leelanau Lake Association. “It’s so bad that our membership mandated we do something about it.”

On Higgins Lake near Grayling, swimmer’s itch was signaled out as more than a nuisance.

“They had such a problem that people couldn’t go in the water,” Fleesznis said. “Property values were falling.”

In previous years, individual lake association’s have fought the good fight, but made limited headway.

Now those groups have joined forces. The MSIP successfully lobbied and received a $250,000 appropriation from the state to trap and relocate mergansers. In addition to Glen Lake and Lake Leelanau, efforts will also be focused on Lime Lake in Leelanau County, Crystal Lake in Benzie County and Higgins Lake in Roscommon County.

MSIP has contracted with Ron Reimink, owner of Freshwater Solutions, to develop a strategy that mixes old methods with new technology.

Beginning this month, the lake associations are seeking help from the public to help identify merganser nests.

They will also have help from professional staff.

“We have a crew working on finding nests and we hope to locate as many as five to seven nests,” said Karner, the GLA biologist.

Once located — and with permission of property owners — crews will place cameras to monitor the nesting area.

Nest sites are often close to the shoreline but can be several hundred yards from shore as well. The nest height off the ground can be from 2 to 50 feet high.

The Lake Leelanau Lake Association has long logged swimmer’s itch complaints via its website. However, this summer outbreaks of the itch can be reported directly from cell phone browsers to the lake association’s web site.

Help will also be available from above.

MSIP has enlisted Zero Gravity LLC to locate merganser nest cavities in trees. Drones will be used to get a “bird’s eye” view of the forest and better analyze where nests might be located.

Federal law prohibits harm of the birds or eggs during nesting season. However, MSIP has secured a permit that allows the relocation of broods from the lakes. In addition, after the nesting season concludes, crews are scheduled to “seal” the nests, eliminating homes for birds returning next spring.

Nest sites and “hot spots” for swimmer’s itch will also be identified with help of a new device that measures the number of parasites in lake samples.

Joe Blondia and Bruce Hood, teachers of biology at the Leelanau School, will be analyzing lake samples.

If successful, the relocation pilot program could be applied elsewhere in the state and beyond. Swimmer’s itch has been recorded in 30 states and in parts of Canada.

Meanwhile, researchers at Oakland University are experimenting with protective creams.

Bill Meserve, who lives on the easternmost edge of big Glen Lake, has provided his guests a healthy supply of Bull Frog, a cream that is formulated to stay on the skin — even after prolonged exposure to moisture.

“I had 50 people at my house last Fourth of July and no one got ‘the itch,’” Meserve said. “But there are some places where it’s a real problem.”

Swimmer’s itch suggestions

Lakefront owners can help reduce the risk of swimmer’s itch by following these steps:

 Do not swim in areas where swimmer’s itch is a known problem.

 Do not swim near or wade in marshy areas where snails are commonly found.

 Towel dry or shower immediately after leaving the water.

 Do not attract water fowl to areas where people are swimming.

 Encourage health officials to post signs on shorelines where swimmer’s itch is a current problem.

Source: Centers for Disease Control

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