A sunrise over Lake Erie

Blocking aquatic invasive species

A new species appears in the Great Lakes watershed every six to eight months. New funding for Pennsylvania Sea Grant research could change that.

An $800,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will support a two-year effort to control and prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species across Pennsylvania, with an emphasis on the Lake Erie Basin.

The project will be managed by Pennsylvania Sea Grant, part of a national network of 33 Sea Grant colleges and universities that develop research and promote education, training and extension projects geared toward the conservation and practical use of the coasts, Great Lakes and other marine areas. Pennsylvania Sea Grant is administered by Penn State Erie, The Behrend College.

The funding, through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, supports efforts to implement Pennsylvania’s Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) Management Plan. It will directly support nine field projects to prevent or control the spread of aquatic invasive species, including:

  • Targeted control of Hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata) in Pymatuning Lake. Hydrilla is an aquatic perennial with stems that grow as long as 30 feet. The species, which first appeared in Pymatuning Lake in 2014, displaces native plants, disrupts fish populations and tangles in boat propellers.
  • The removal of red-eared slider turtles from Presque Isle Bay. These turtles, which most likely were introduced through the pet trade, prevent native species from using basking sites.
  • Surveys of Natural Heritage Areas within the Lake Erie watershed. These sites, which contain critical ecological resources such as threatened or endangered species, are at risk to invasive populations. Survey data can help biologists and conservation officers develop targeted control and monitoring plans to restore native species.

“This funding is critical to prevent the introduction and spread of aquatic invasive species in Pennsylvania,” said Sarah Whitney, director of Pennsylvania Sea Grant. “It will enable us to work on different aspects of the issue, including prevention, early detection, rapid response and control of aquatic invasive species.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife funding will allow Pennsylvania Sea Grant to develop a consistent and coordinated approach to controlling aquatic invasive species outbreaks across the state by training resource managers to implement Pennsylvania’s AIS Rapid Response Plan.

The grant also includes funding for the continued development of an online database and mapping program that will record aquatic invasive species threats across the Great Lakes watersheds. The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy will lead that project and coordinate targeted control of aquatic invasive species – including plants that impact water resources – in the Lake Erie watershed.

Additional funding will be used to develop a smartphone app for “Pennsylvania’s Field Guide to Aquatic Invasive Species,” a resource developed by Pennsylvania Sea Grant in 2013. The app will serve as a mobile companion to the printed guide, which is used by conservation officers, biologists, volunteer monitors and others who work in Pennsylvania waters.

“Preventing the spread of aquatic invasive species is the first priority, and everyone can help in that effort,” Whitney said. “If you spend time on the water, make sure you don’t move plants or animals from one body of water to another. By taking steps to ‘clean, drain and dry’ equipment, you can reduce the risk of spreading aquatic invasive species.”

The collaborative approach is a key component of the federal grant: The work will be overseen by Pennsylvania Sea Grant, a partnership of Penn State, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Other agencies and organizations will provide essential support, including the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, the Crawford County Conservation District and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

Each of those agencies needs the expertise of the others. Nearly 200 invasive species already have been found in the Great Lakes, from zebra and quagga mussels to round gobies and starry stonewort. A new species appears in the watershed every six to eight months.