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Environmental group tests Erie Canal and Oswego River water for invasive species

Gino Geruntino
The Nature Conservancy's Andrew Tucker empties water from a collection tube into a container held by Benjamin Wegleitener.

The Nature Conservancy and other environmental groups are making use of a recently developed DNA sampling technique to determine whether or not any invasive species might be swimming, living or growing in the Oswego River and Erie Canal. By taking hundreds of water samples, the group believes it can slow the growth of invasive species in the state.

Andrew Tucker leans over the front of a flat bottom boat, holding a two-liter container. The boat rocks gently as he collects surface water samples for analysis from the Oswego River in Fulton. It's the first of five days of collecting.

Credit Gino Geruntino / WRVO
Andrew Tucker grabs a collection bottle from a cooler while Benjamin Wegleitener writes down the water depth.

Tucker, an Aquatic Invasive Species Applied Ecologist with the Nature Conservancy's Great Lakes Project, says the water contains DNA from fish, plants and animals, basically anything that's been in the water recently.

"It's really about early detection of these invasive species, and we've got this really novel technique that allows us to do that," Tucker said. "It's more sensitive than some of the traditional fisheries' techniques."

He notes that right now there are more than 40 non-native species on the environmental group's watch list that they're looking for during the testing. But he admits there are probably more invasive species than that in these bodies of water that they don't know about yet. Among the invasives they are looking for are zebra mussels, water chestnuts, hydrilla, Asian carp and Asian clam, all of which either have or could hurt the ecosystem and make the canal unnavigable.

Credit Gino Geruntino / WRVO
Robert Williams displays a water chestnut that was floating in the Oswego River.

Robert Williams, conservation practitioner with the Nature Conservancy. He also serves as coordinator for the St. Lawrence Eastern Lake Ontario Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management, or SLELO PRISM. He says invaders are much easier to treat when there are a small number of them around.

"Once an invasive species finds its way into an area and becomes established and the population increases, so does the cost of controlling it," Williams explained.

Tucker says controlling an invasive's spread isn't the only cost. If left unchecked, invasive species can choke waterways and alter ecosystems. In total, invasive species cost the Great Lakes at least $100 million annually because of the havoc they can wreak.

"That's in direct costs to lost revenue to commercial fisheries or for recreational fisheries, or whatever," Tucker said. But it's also an indirect cost, in terms of management and control of these invasive species."

Williams added that nationwide, the costs amount to about $167 billion.

Credit Gino Geruntino / WRVO
Andrew Tucker pulls up a water collection tube that was dropped into the middle of the Oswego River.

"I think you can bring it down to scale and bring it down to more regional impact, that's the impacts that you and I feel on a daily basis," Williams said. "Not being able to swim in a certain area, or canoe in a certain area."

The Nature Conservancy and PRISM are collecting water samples from various locations in New York this year. They will then be analyzed at Central Michigan University, which takes about six months.

Tucker says those results will be given to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Environmental Protection Agency, and used to craft a plan to battle those invasive species.

"Prevention is the key, that's sort of the gold standard," Tucker said. "But there are, I think, successful examples of control and management of invasive species. The sea lamprey in the Great Lakes is a good one. I mean, it takes a good deal of money to control and sort of keep them at bay, but we've successfully done that."