Photo by Jeff Adkins/Farm Flavor Media

No hitchhiking. That’s good advice to keep people safe – and to protect water quality.

Part of the largest body of freshwater on earth, Lake Erie is the most biologically productive of the Great Lakes and is home to the biggest sport fishing industry, which is a boon to the Michigan economy. But, the boats used for fishing and recreation can pick up hitchhikers in the form of invasive species and inadvertently move the unwanted travelers from one body of water to another.

Educational efforts through programs like Michigan Clean Boats, Clean Waters reach out to fishermen and recreational boaters about simple steps they can take to ensure they aren’t transferring aquatic invasive species into Lake Erie or any of the state’s other lakes, rivers and streams.

“The message is: don’t release anything into a body of water that didn’t come out of that water,” says Jennifer Read, Ph.D., director of the Michigan Water Center at the University of Michigan. She is also a member of the Michigan Cleaner Lake Erie through Action and Research (MI CLEAR) Partnership, whose mission is to improve the water quality of the Lake Erie Basin. MI CLEAR brings together a broad cross-section of those with shared interest in protecting the quality of water, including farmers, landscape professionals, researchers and economic developers.

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Boaters Can Help

Boaters are encouraged to clean weeds and other debris from their boats when launched, and then clean the boats again when they are pulled from the lake. Also, fishermen are asked not to dump their live well back into the lake, and not to dump any bait into the lake.

In addition to appealing to boaters, Michigan is also working with shipping companies to address the issue of ballast water. That’s the water ships pull into the ballast to improve stability. The water is taken on at the beginning of the journey, which could be in a foreign port, and then discharged when the cargo is unloaded. Emptying ballast water into Lake Erie can deposit plants and animals not native to the region.

“Historically, many aquatic invasive species have been introduced through ballast water,” says Jim Johnson, director of the Environmental Stewardship Division, Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. “Sometimes that water is offloaded, which also releases any aquatic life residing in it. Quagga and zebra mussels are examples of creatures who made the trip and were legally, though unintentionally, released into the Great Lakes.”

Quagga and zebra mussels feed on particles or small organisms strained out of water, meaning they clarify the water they’re in. While this may seem like a positive thing, it creates several challenges. As the mussels filter the water, they remove plankton, disrupting the food chain. Clearer water also means light penetrates to a much greater depth than when it was murkier. As a result, the plants on the lake floor are now growing further out into the bottom of the lakes, and algae blooms have the potential to be found in thicker mats.

Early Detection is Key

To combat problems like these from occurring in the future, The Nature Conservancy is working to ensure problematic invasive species do not enter the area and eradicate intruders before they cause significant damage.

“We monitor for invasive species so we can detect them before they become established,” says Rich Bowman, director of government relations for The Nature Conservancy. “We try to handle them before they reproduce because once a species has invaded an area, there’s not much you can do other than deal with the repercussions.”


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