We are losing a faceoff with a tiny creature that could cause immense damage.
The spiny water flea, an invasive species that has everyone on high alert, has been spotted in Lock 9 of the Champlain Canal, a site that is near Whitehall, 13 miles from the bottom of Lake Champlain. That puts it on course for entering our precious lake at some point, which could have a huge impact on aquatic life and local fishing.
The spiny water flea is a small, somewhat translucent creature that looks like something you would see in a science-fiction movie. Unfortunately, its impact on the ecosystem is very real. When these fleas group together, they can overtake native species and clog up human systems, akin to the well-documented problems created a few years ago by zebra mussels. Beating back those dreaded — and sharp, if you were barefooted — mussels took years of effort and a great deal of money and resources. It would not be wise to get in the same situation with the spiny water flea.
If it were up to the average person, the water flea would have been well established in Lake Champlain before anyone knew any better. Fortunately, we have experts who watch out for this kind of thing. The Lake Champlain Research Institute at Plattsburgh State and the Lake Champlain Basin Program saw the threat coming.
The Basin Program’s Aquatic Invasive Species Rapid Response Task Force jumped into action right away, but, sadly, it was already too late to contain the troublesome water fleas.
Though some experts were advocating for closing the locks down completely, that was ruled out, partly because of the economic impact that would arise from preventing boats from entering Lake Champlain through the southern gateway.
Instead, the recommendations are to:
▶ Look into redirecting the surplus flow from the canal away from Lake Champlain.
▶ Start a Champlain Canal barrier feasibility study.
▶ Get the Department of Environmental Conservation and other agencies to increase sampling in the canals.
▶ Educate people about the spiny water flea and the danger it presents.
▶ Develop a model predicting which lakes are most susceptible to flea invasions.
▶ Get steward and greeter programs to spread the word to boaters and have everyone watch for the creature.
▶ Print more watch cards about spiny water fleas and distribute them to key user groups.
Will that plan of attack be enough to stop the latest invasive species? Only time will tell. We have seen the very real problems created in the lake by zebra mussels and are still watching out for land-based invasive species such as the Asian longhorn beetle and emerald ash borer.
It is important that people don’t underestimate the latest tiny troublemaker.