A new invasive species is on its way to Lake Champlain, scientists say, and this non-native, shrimp-like organism could be here to stay.
The fast-spreading spiny water flea, which can disrupt the lake’s food chain and biodiversity, has been found in the Glen Falls Feeder Canal, according to a research institute.
Tim Mihuc, director of the Lake Champlain Research Institute, says the organism is “on its way into the lake, if it’s not already there.”
The spiny water flea, which measures less than 1 inch in length, eat the food that other fish eat in their early stages of development. By feeding on the lake’s plankton, this invasive can impoverish the food chain for young walleye, perch and many other species of fish.
The organism can reproduce asexually, and their numbers can increase 10-fold in about two weeks.
“Only time will tell how great any impacts on Lake Champlain’s fisheries may turn out to be,” said Wayne Laroche, a scientist for Lake Champlain International, a water quality advocacy organization. “And if it establishes an abundant population, don’t expect this ‘flea’ to stop at Lake Champlain.”
Native to northern Europe and Asia, the organism first arrived in the U.S. aboard ships’ water tanks that were later emptied into the Great Lakes, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Ballast tanks are filled up with water to keep boats stable.
Scientists have been tracking the water flea’s spread into Lake Champlain because it is connected to the Great Lakes via a network of canals. The water flea has been found in the Lake Champlain Canal that feeds into the southern section of the lake, according to LCRI.
The best way to prevent the spread of this invasive species into Lake Champlain is through early detection, according to the Lake Champlain Basin Program, a partnership between government agencies in New York, Vermont and Québec, and several private organizations.
It is unclear how Lake Champlain’s ecosystem will respond to the water flea. While some large fish can feed on the water flea, the thorny organism can also puncture the stomachs of smaller fish.
New York Department of Environmental Conservation in 2012 issued a press release with several recommendations on how to stop the spread of the water flea into Lake Champlain.
The department’s Lake Champlain Basin Aquatic Invasive Species Rapid Response Task Force says the most effective way to slow the spread of the spiny water flea is to prevent the flow of water from the Glens Falls Feeder Canal to Lake Champlain by diverting the flow into the Hudson River drainage.
The task force is also conducting a feasibility study for a hydrologic barrier that would prevent the movement of aquatic plants and animals between the Champlain and Hudson Watersheds through the Champlain Canal system. The barrier would prevent the canal system from serving as a vector for aquatic invasive species moving in and out of the Lake Champlain Basin.
There are 49 aquatic invasive species in Lake Champlain, according to the Lake Champlain Basin Program’s 2012 State of the Lake report. The most recent invasive species to enter the lake was watermilfoil, the feathery underwater plant that the state considers a threat to all lakes and ponds.
The Lake Champlain Basin Program says the spiny water flea competes with native fish for food, clogs recreational and commercial gear and can dramatically alter the productivity of a fishery.
The spiny water flea prefers water temperatures between 50 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit.