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Invasive species expert talks about Round Goby threat to Lake Champlain

 Round Goby
Eric Engbretson
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Round Goby

Lake Champlain faces the possible incursion of another invasive aquatic species. The Round Goby, native to Eurasia, entered the Great Lakes system in the 1990’s and has been tracked spreading east through the Erie Canal system. The detection of the fish at the confluence of the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers last July has raised concerns that it could enter the Champlain Canal system and make its way into Lake Champlain.

Lake Champlain Basin Program Aquatic Invasive Species Management Coordinator Meg Modley says response measures recently outlined by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Canal Corporation help to better understand the threat and any effort needed to contain the spread. Modley spoke with WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley.

Round Goby for many years was closest to Lake Champlain to the north at the confluence of the Richelieu and the St. Lawrence Seaway. It has remained north of the Saint-Ours dam for a number of years and we have not seen it move further upstream. But we are investing in early detection monitoring there to be able to say where and when it might be moving. But the expansion of Round Goby through the Erie Canal system happened over a few short years, and it moved through the entirety of the system to the confluence the Mohawk and the Hudson. And that's what's really raised a lot of concern in the Lake Champlain community about possible impacts to our fishery and our economy and our everyday experience on the lake. So in terms of the response efforts we need to do all of those things at the same time. We need to do that education and outreach. And so the Lake Champlain Basin Program and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are co-funding a new position at New York State DEC, which is an outreach specialist position that will work primarily along the canal corridor to educate anglers and community members and businesses about what Round Goby is, what it looks like. So how to identify it, how to report it, how to dispose of it properly.

The early detection monitoring is also a step that the Basin Program was able to tap our rapid response funds and we have a contract with USGS New York to do that early detection and monitoring in collaboration with New York State DEC and canals. The canals remain the largest, highest risk, open pathway of the species introduction to Lake Champlain. But we're also really concerned about a bait bucket introduction. Whether that is unintentional or intentional, the closer a viable population of Round Goby comes to Lake Champlain, the more likely that type of an introduction. So that outreach specialist position will be focused on making sure we have the right signage, the right messaging going out about Round Goby identification and reporting.

There are a few proposed techniques to help prevent them from getting into the lock. I think the methods that have been proposed, the double draining and the limited lockage, are options that need to be further evaluated in terms of their efficacy. They are steps that can be implemented quickly like when they open the system, which is important. But we're also going to look at other measures that have been taken in other systems throughout the country with other partners to see if there might be other opportunities to help prevent them from getting to Lake Champlain.

One of the things that the DEC and the Canal Corporation talk about doing is sampling to determine the extent and where the Round Goby is. We know that they've been detected at the confluence of the rivers south of the Champlain Canal. Is there enough staff? Is there enough people to do the type of sampling to determine what they're talking about, see how many Round Goby are in these waterways?

Early detection monitoring using environmental DNA and trawling. So the environmental DNA would be detecting some piece of a Round Goby, some sloughed off material in the water. And it is a good way to try and sample a detection of like the frontier of expansion. It's going to be complemented by trawling, so netting and actually trying to collect specimens of Round Goby. And those specimens will also be tested for the VHS, that virus, that pathogen that we're worried about.

You know, we are collaborating with DEC and Canals. I think we've identified the key locations, the critical points where we need to know whether or not they're present. So whether that's certain increments between the Hudson the Mohawk and the southern end of the Champlain Canal. And we have a few other factors. We also know that the Glens Falls feeder brings Hudson River water to the height of the Champlain Canal. So we'd want to test there. And then we'd want to test just downhill and north of that into the Champlain drainage and downhill and south of that into the Hudson drainage. We're also going to test in the southern end of Lake Champlain so that we can be more certain where it is that we think they might be. What's under development right now is a Round Goby specific response plan that would say, you know, if they're found in certain location, then there are X options to implement. So I think that this is unfolding every single day. To date, we've been able to bring a number of resources to the table to ensure that we're taking the steps that we can to get the information that we need to make future decisions.

There was a Citizens Advisory Committee virtual meeting. In that meeting there was an effort to ask Governor Hochul to close the canal until we can figure out what's happening with the Round Goby and prevent the Round Goby from entering Lake Champlain. What happened after that meeting? Did that continue? And do you think that the action by the DEC and the Canal Corporation was in some way a response to that?

Well, I think there have been a number of groups that have been requesting action, different types of action. Closing the canal, there are definitions here we need to be clear on. I think some people say close the canal and they think, oh you don't open it, you don't use it, it's drained. You don't use it at all. One of the requests from a group was to close the southernmost lock on the canal system, which would still allow for recreational use and traffic but not passage through that specific lock. You know, we want to work with the New York State DEC and the Canal Corporation to maintain the viability of the system long term. Round Goby is our issue of concern today. But if we do not get an all taxa barrier approach installed we are going to be in this response mode in perpetuity depending on what shows up.

Well, it seems every couple years we're talking about a new invasive that's coming into Lake Champlain, one way or another. It's not always via the Champlain Canal and the locks. With the Round Goby, though it seems like it's advance kind of accelerated and is coming in a lot faster than originally anticipated. Is that the case?

I think it moved through the Erie Canal system pretty quickly. And unfortunately now the Hudson system and the Mohawk system have to bear those impacts. I think that there's been a lot of effort dedicated to looking at the system. And Governor Cuomo’s Reimagine the Canal initiative did invest a lot of dollars into looking at revitalization, but also looking at the threat of inter-basin transfer of invasive species. So that infusion of resource and focus as well as the arrival of Round Goby in the Mohawk and the Hudson, I think elevates the need to really continue to pursue as quickly as possible this all taxa barrier approach. We've been looking at this for a few decades and it's been a need. And what we know is that the canals are the pathway by which the greatest number of harmful invasives get into Lake Champlain. And we need to do something or we're going to continue to have introductions.

Do you think that people may pay attention to the Round Goby a little bit more? The Round Goby is a fish that will compete with some of the established fish in the lake.

I think it's a bit of a worse actor, if you will. It has a number of additional impacts that have been documented in other ecosystems. So we've seen other canals close some locks to contain Round Goby and to think about other ways to prevent them from spreading and moving. We've seen impacts to the bass fishing season and other lakes due to Round Goby, just because it carries viral hemorrhagic septicemia and it can transfer it. There are a number of impacts here that I think are hitting on a number of different interests.

Based on what we've seen in the Great Lakes if the Round Goby does get into Lake Champlain how long will it be before we see the negative impacts?

I don't know. It's a different ecosystem. Every Lake is different. It's made up of different organisms, different plants, different rock and mud substrates, different water quality parameters. I don't know how quickly it will spread throughout the lake if it gets in or when we would expect to start seeing impacts. We do know in other systems it's taken only a few years for the benthic fish to be displaced or to impact the bass community. Bass get bigger but eggs start disappearing. So we don't know the answer to the question and we'd prefer not to find out. You know, I love Lake Champlain and we hope that we can keep this Round Goby out.

There are 51 known non-native and invasive species in Lake Champlain and about a dozen cause measurable harm. The lake is connected by canal-ways to surrounding water systems including the St. Lawrence Seaway, which has 87 invasive species, the Great Lakes, which have reported 188 invasives, and the Hudson River, which currently has 122 aquatic invasives.

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