Round Goby

Invasive Species: What Can We Do?

By Noah Johnson, Museum Educator

Invasive species are a major threat to the health and enjoyment of Lake Champlain. If you have spent any time in the water this summer, you most likely have encountered dozens of zebra mussels glued on to a rock or waded through forests of eurasian water milfoil. Not only do these invasive species ruin the recreational aspect of the lake, but they also destroy local ecosystems and upset balance. Unfortunately, a lot of damage has already been done, but that doesn’t mean hope is lost. So what can you do?

The shipwreck Champlain II seen underwater with zebra mussels visible on many surfaces
Zebra mussels covering the surface of the shipwreck of the Champlain II

To date, 51 non-native species have been identified in Lake Champlain, while 14 of those have been classified as invasive (causing significantly more harm to the ecosystem than just non-native species). But how did they even get here? Simply put, boats.

Many boats have something called a ballast, which is weight at the bottom of the boat to stabilize the vessel while moving. Traditionally people used stones or the cargo they were transporting as ballast. However, with more recent technology, cargo vessels today use pumps to fill tanks with water to act as a ballast. If the vessel refills its ballast in foreign waterways, it is very possible for it to pick up an invasive species (or multiple), and bring it back to our local waterways.

A diagram of how a ship ballast may transport invasive species to and from its source and destination port

But this still leaves the question of Lake Champlain. Sure, the Hudson River, the Great Lakes and other major economic routes would get dumped with invasive species. But Lake Champlain is purely recreational. There are no economic ports in Lake Champlain. However, the canal system connecting Lake Champlain to the Hudson and indirectly to the Great Lakes allowed for the spread of many invasive species. For example, the water chestnut made its way through the canal to the south lake in the 1940s, and the zebra mussel traveled the canals as well, going from the Great Lakes to Lake Champlain over the course of 5 years.

There also remains the problem of privately-owned recreational boats. While the canals may have been responsible for fast moving and spreading invasive species, many other non-native species have reached Lake Champlain and smaller lakes in Vermont through small recreational boats not being properly cleaned. If any invasive species, either seeds, eggs, or the actual species itself, gets caught on your boat, you could unknowingly bring it to another lake. You should always check your boat for any invasive species, wash your boat (ideally with water above 140℉), drain, and dry your boat. These steps will help keep our local waterways clear of invasive species.

Now, as with many environmental problems, each individual can only do so much. After all, we’re not operating cargo ships full of ballast water from halfway across the world. So what regulation is in place to help prevent the spread of new invasive species?

Luckily, the Clean Water Act of 1972 gave the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the ability to set regulations on the release of pollutants from point sources (including ships). However, it wasn’t until 2008 that the EPA actually started regulating released ballast water from cargo ships after major efforts from conservationists and a court case. Now regulations state that all large vessels (>79 feet in length) must have ballast treatment systems to prevent the spread of invasive species.

As much as there are more regulations in place now, and more people are learning how to take care of their boats, the issue is far from resolved. In fact, Lake Champlain is under immediate threat from the round goby, an invasive species of fish that has been making its way through the canal systems towards Lake Champlain. If the round goby enters Lake Champlain it will have catastrophic impacts on the lake. Round gobies eat fish eggs and reproduce quickly, which will result in native fish populations plummeting. Not only does this harm the ecosystem, but it also destroys recreational fishing.

Learn more about the latest work and monitoring of the round goby from the Lake Champlain Basin Program.

The round goby. This invasive species is already present in the Great Lakes and the Hudson and on its way to Lake Champlain

Further reading about the round goby: