A plan of attack on invasive species

Kelly McDonald is a biological technician at the Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office. Photo credit: USFWS

Kelly McDonald is a biological technician at the Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office in New York. Photo credit: USFWS

Invasive species awareness and education is a critical part of fighting these foreign invaders. This week we are highlighting the intense work our biologists take on each day in their efforts to control the deadly spread of invasive species. Today we hear from Kelly McDonald, a biological technician with the aquatic invasive species team at the Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office in New York.

 

In the quest to fight invasive species, timing can make all the difference in the world. If discovered too late, as many invasive species have already proven, their impact on ecological balance is devastating. But aquatic invasive species (AIS) crews at the Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office are on the front lines to battle new invaders, executing a plan that would stop this trend before they have the chance get out of control.

Biologists pull a paired fyke net out of the upper Niagara River. The nets are set overnight in sample locations. Photo credit: USFWS

Biologists pull a paired fyke net out of the upper Niagara River. The nets are set overnight in sample locations. Photo credit: USFWS

In partnership with other federal, state and non-government agencies, Service biologists have developed a system called Early Detection and Monitoring, or EDM, in an effort to prevent the ecological suffering that invasive species often cause when they spread unchecked. We are now using the EDM program as part of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to keep invasive species from taking over the Great Lakes. Previously introduced invasive species such as zebra mussel and round goby have plagued the Great Lakes, causing negative biological impacts and hurting local economies.

One of the AIS crew members takes environmental DNA samples out in the field. Environmental DNA uses genetics to look for invasive species in water samples. Photo credit: USFWS

One of the AIS crew members takes environmental DNA samples out in the field.  Environmental DNA uses genetics to look for invasive species in water samples. Photo credit: USFWS

 

So what is so special about this EDM program? While most invasive species control programs have focused on reacting to already established species, the EDM program takes a pro-active approach in its mission to seek out and detect new invaders before they take over. The earlier an infestation is discovered, the more feasible it is to eradicate and manage the species, preventing catastrophic damage.

The program, while still relatively young, is evolving and growing to best detect several different types of aquatic invasive species. The techniques we use in the program include a variety of field methods and cutting edge technology in order to cover as much biological ground as possible. We use sampling methods for invertebrates and fish, while also applying innovative genetics and GIS technology to search for invasive species.

Lab work is an important aspect of fighting invasive species. Here, we measure and count ichthyoplankton in preparation for genetic analysis. Photo credit: USFWS

Lab work is an important aspect of fighting invasive species. Here, we measure and count ichthyoplankton in preparation for genetic analysis. Photo credit: USFWS

While practicing the best sound-science possible, the team uses an ecosystem-based approach to determine where to collect samples. We take into consideration the populations of native species in the area, the proximity of human populations, types of aquatic habitats, and possible means of invasive species introduction. But all this data is not limited to just finding invasive species. The information we gather also provides needed baseline data for more in-depth projects down the road. For example, one aspect of the EDM program is mapping habitat using side-scan sonar to image the bottom of potential sample areas. Once complete, we then “ground truth” that data by bringing an underwater camera and a bottom sampler, called a Ponar, to confirm that the bottom habitat is mapped correctly. This information can be invaluable for native species spawning studies or potential restoration projects.

After spending time on the water, staff rinse down ichthyoplankton nets. They skim the top of the water to catch larval fish at night, when they rise to the top. Photo credit: USFWS

After spending time on the water, staff rinse down ichthyoplankton nets. They skim the top of the water to catch larval fish at night, when they rise to the top. Photo credit: USFWS

So far, we have not discovered any new invaders using the EDM program. But if we do, a rapid response could make all the difference between eradication and control, or trying to fight a losing battle. Typically these quick actions include a large coordinated effort between many partners to thoroughly sample the areas to determine the extent of the infestation, and plan an adaptive management strategy to best attack the species before it becomes a serious and harmful issue.

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