TOLEDO (AP) -- Environmentalists and charter fishing captains expect Lake Erie's fish population to climb with the closing of coal-burning units at a power plant near the mouth of the lake's biggest tributary.
The plant, which is being shut down by its operator because of new air pollution rules, sucks in billions of gallons of water each year and kills millions of fish near some of the lake's most popular fishing spots.
Environmental groups have said for years that the fish kills have contributed to declining levels of both yellow perch and walleye, two prized fish that draw anglers from around the Midwest. The groups have tried to force the plant's owner, Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp., to install costly changes that would stop millions of fish from being killed each year.
But last week, FirstEnergy announced it was shutting down six older, coal-fired power plants, including one that sits along the Maumee River near Toledo. The plant cools its machinery with water from the river, which also is a prime spot for spawning walleye.
Drawing out the water kills 46 million adult fish each year, many of which were less desirable fish, but would have gone into the lake's food chain. The toll includes millions more fish eggs and tiny fish in their larval form. "Now those numbers will be way down," said Sandy Bihn, who leads a group called the Western Lake Erie Waterkeeper Association.
Hundreds of power plants and factories around the nation use water from rivers, lakes, oceans and creeks to cool their machines. Older plants use systems that trap millions of fish in screens and suck in smaller aquatic organisms while new plants are required to use equipment that is more fish friendly.
FirstEnergy said last week about 80 people will lose their positions when it shuts down all of the coal-burning generators at its plant near Toledo. One of the generators that doesn't burn coal will remain operating.
"We certainly did not want to lose those jobs," said Paul Pacholski, a charter boat captain, who said he would rather see the plant make modifications to its water intake system.
FirstEnergy said in the past that the kind of changes others wanted would cost close to $100 million and drive up electricity rates. Instead, the company began testing gate-like devices to cut down on the fish kills.
Charter captain, Dave Spangler of Oak Harbor, said he thinks the closing of the plant in September will make a difference right away.
"A lot of those fish are primarily bait fish," he said. "And there will be that many more walleye that can get by during spawning."
The walleye may be one of the most important resources for towns along Lake Erie's western shore, but its numbers have dropped off over the last few decade. There are about 20 million in Lake Erie, down from an estimated 80 million in the 1980s.