State News

Environmentalists raise alarm about invasive fish in Hudson River, move to protect Lake Champlain

By Emma Cotton/VTDigger

Environmentalists and politicians in Vermont are urging New York officials to close a lock in the Champlain Canal to prevent the round goby, an aggressive invasive fish, from entering Lake Champlain.

Courtesy of Scott George of the U.S. Geological Survey
The average round goby measures between 4 and 9 inches long.

If the small green fish, which is native to the Caspian and Black Sea regions, makes its way into the lake, it could have a devastating impact on the local ecosystem. A prolific breeder, the fish spawns more than once per season, and it eats the eggs of other fish and their young.

The species is resilient — it can survive in poor water quality — and it would likely bring a pathogen called viral hemorrhagic septicemia that could affect other aquatic species.

“Once it gets into Lake Champlain, there’s no controlling it,” said Meg Modley, aquatic invasive species management coordinator for the Lake Champlain Basin Program. “Game over.”

The round goby has traveled through the manmade canal system that stretches from the Great Lakes, where its population has run rampant, through New York.

If the fish were to enter Lake Champlain, it would need to travel up the Hudson River and the Champlain Canal. Locks currently create physical barriers between the river and the lake, but they typically reopen in the summer.

The Nature Conservancy is calling for New York officials to keep closed Lake Champlain Canal Lock C7 — used by boaters to traverse the waterway — until a long-term solution can address the problem. As of now, it’s scheduled to open May 20, according to staff at the New York State Canal Corporation.

“Over a two-year period, the round goby population in Oneida Lake increased from barely detectable levels to being the most abundant benthic bottom-dwelling fish in the lake, and over a five-year period, round goby colonized all five of the Great Lakes,” said Stu Gruskin, chief conservation and external affairs officer for the Nature Conservancy in New York.

Last summer, the fish was detected at the confluence of the Hudson River and the Erie Canal, reaching waters north of Troy, he said.

For the last 50 years, Vermont has worked to rebuild its lake trout population, which has recently made a significant comeback, said Lauren Oates, policy director at Vermont chapter of the Nature Conservancy. Lake Champlain is the source lake for a number of inland water bodies in Vermont and the Adirondacks, she said, so if the fish spreads to Lake Champlain, it’s likely to travel elsewhere.

“The round goby will be a direct competitor to lake trout and significantly impede, if not reverse, that recovery that we’ve worked so hard for,” Oates said.  U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., issued a joint statement to VTDigger Friday afternoon, urging immediate action to mitigate the spread of the species.  “The round goby is a clear and present threat to Lake Champlain’s fisheries and ecosystem. Not only is it a voracious predator, but the round goby also carries botulism, which can spread easily to the area’s water birds,” the statement said.

The congressional delegation has been pushing for a permanent barrier to prevent invasive species from entering Lake Champlain from the canal system.

“Until that work is completed, immediate emergency measures must be taken to stop the advance of the round goby, possibly including restricting the use of the canal,” the statement said.

While historically the canal was used for industry and commerce, recreational boating is now its main purpose. Last year, boaters passed through the C7 lock about 100 times, Oates said. The canal would be open north and south of the lock, but boaters looking to traverse it entirely would need to find another method, such as using a trailer.

“It would be an inconvenience, but it would be a temporary measure that would be protecting against a much, much, much greater harm if the round goby got into Lake Champlain,” said Gruskin, with the Nature Conservancy’s New York chapter.

So far, New York officials haven’t committed to closing the lock.

In a joint statement, New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation and the New York State Canal Corporation said they’re “assessing the potential spread of the round goby” and developing actions to mitigate its spread.

“Prior to advancing any actions, DEC and the Canal Corporation will undertake public outreach to educate and engage stakeholders on any measures identified to limit the spread of round goby, including actions individuals can take to reduce the spread of the invasive fish,” the statement said.

A spokesperson for New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said the governor “is aware of the threats posed by aquatic invasive species and the role the canal system can play in their movement, and has directed DEC and NYPA/Canal Corporation to evaluate options necessary to address this issue and will coordinate with partners, including Quebec and Vermont, on issues that impact our shared waterways.”

Gruskin said the situation requires more urgent action.

“I do have a concern that, while they continue to study it, the fish aren’t going to be studying, they’re going to be moving,” he said. “There really does need to be this temporary protection.”

Modley, with the Lake Champlain Basin Program, said the round goby has long been on the organization’s invasive species watch list, and said its spread throughout the canal system happened much more quickly than expected.

The organization has had an ongoing discussion about “recognizing that the Champlain Canal is the pathway by which the greatest number of harmful non-native species have entered Lake Champlain,” Modley said.

“If today, we’re dealing with round goby, we may in the future deal with quagga mussel, hydrilla, snakehead or Asian carp,” she said.

They’ve deployed resources from their rapid response emergency fund, which will help them conduct additional sampling to detect the round goby early. The organization is also developing a full-time position for a person who would conduct outreach about interbasin transfers on invasive species, with a focus on round goby.

“An ounce of prevention is worth many pounds of cure,” said Eric Howe, program director at the Lake Champlain Basin Program. “If it gets into Lake Champlain, there’s nothing that we can do about it. And we’ll be looking at, probably, significant ecological changes to the lake, at least at the fishery level.”

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