As canal season approaches, what’s going on with the round goby and Lake Champlain?

By Kira Corasanti | Community News Service

When scientists detected a small, bug-eyed gray fish two years ago at the confluence of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers in New York, it set off alarms everywhere along the waters of Lake Champlain. Native to the Baltic Sea in Europe, the fish had made its way east after being introduced into the Great Lakes in 1990.

Now, the round goby has wiggled its way into a position to threaten Lake Champlain.

U.S. Geological Survey

A round goby fish

“No other species in Vermont can cause this amount of damage,” said Kimberly Jensen, an environmental scientist who leads the Vermont Department of Conservation’s Aquatic Invasive Species Program. She and other Vermont officials worry the fish will invade the state’s waters via the Champlain Canal.

Invasive species are not new to Lake Champlain. Monitors have identified more than 50 currently in its waters. But officials in both states say the goby represents one of the biggest threats to the lake and its basin they’ve seen. The fish reproduces quickly, outcompetes native species for food and habitat, eats the young and eggs of other fish and can spread ailments like botulism up the food chain to birds. In the Hudson River, the gobies eat the eggs of striped bass, a staple of New York anglers, and Vermont officials fear something similar could happen in the lake if the species spreads.

“If not restrained, (gobies) will demolish tourism and recreational fishing,” Jensen said.

The goby population in the Hudson River remains small and, to date, a lot of its impacts have not been realized. But researchers say that is changing.

“Round goby can be reliably captured with electrofishing, which indicates that the population is growing,” said Lori Severino, the public relations officer for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, referring to a technique that uses direct current electricity to attract and stun targeted fish for capture.

Two years since the detection of goby, New York and Vermont officials are continuing efforts to prevent the fish from wrecking the ecosystem and the economy. The quasi-private New York State Canal Corporation, which oversees the canal, has been resistant to measures that would close the canal as a way to mitigate the spread of invasives — rejecting calls by Vermont leaders. With anglers, boaters and environmental advocates alike concerned about what the future of the canal holds in the midst of the round goby, officials have become entangled in a balancing act.

“This particular invasive species, to my knowledge, has been one of the most intense efforts to mitigate the spread of an invasive species in Lake Champlain,” said Shane Mahar, communications director at New York Power Authority, which along with that state’s environmental conservation department and the canal group has undertaken educational campaigns around the issue.

If the fish were to enter Lake Champlain, it would need to travel up the Hudson River and the Champlain Canal. Typically, the canal closes from the fall until the spring, during which time the locks are shut and create physical barriers between the river and the lake. But they reopen in the summer when New York’s canal system opens to the public for the season.

“We have an upcoming season upon us,” said Mahar, adding, “Before then, we’re making a joint effort with the DEC about public outreach and education.”

This year the canal is scheduled to open May 19, and among other regulations, authorities will be continuing a practice they began last summer: double-draining the first two locks of the canal. That entails filling the chambers, draining them and refilling them before letting boats proceed toward the lake. Boats heading south, away from the lake, only have to stay in the lock chamber for one draining.

The goal is to flush gobies out of the lock chamber and stem their approach upstream. The Lake Champlain Basin Program is signing a contract for the next two years with the U.S Geological Survey to look for DNA shed by the fish in the environment at 70 locations on the canal.

Those efforts came from a task force formed last March to review mitigation measures for the goby ahead of this year’s season. The group includes reps from the basin program, the canal group, the New York conservation department and Parks Canada in Quebec.

“We are doing everything we can at the moment,” said Erik Reardon, an aquatic invasive species specialist with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

As part of the plan, officials last year rolled out scheduled temporary closures of locks on the canal, invested funds for early detection monitoring and more, all of which continues this year.

A key priority for this canal season is making sure anglers don’t use the goby as bait, said Mahar.

“We are informing voters about the round goby and creating awareness among the boating and fishing communities,” Mahar said. The corporation has been putting up signs along the canal asking greeters to look out for round goby and asking Vermont game wardens to check bait.

The cross-state efforts to combat invasives like the goby also involve a multimillion-dollar agreement between the basin program and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is conducting a feasibility study to assess options for permanent barriers in the canal to prevent the spread of invasives.

But there has not been any action on that front in the past couple years.

“Right now, the study is in phase two,” Modley said. “We are working on gathering data and resources.”

For years some stakeholders — such as the Canal Corporation — have raised concerns that installing barriers in the canal would hamper boater traffic up the Hudson and into Lake Champlain, cutting into tourism money too.

“There has been pushback from the marinas,” said Reardon, with the New York environmental conservation department. “They are concerned about boating traffic being disrupted because that’s what they rely on. They want to preserve the navigation on the system.”

But it seems Vermont boating groups are out of the regulatory loop.

“It didn’t seem to affect traffic last year, so it doesn’t seem like it will affect traffic this year,” said Mike O’Brien, president of the Vermont Boat and Marine Association.

O’Brien said that “there have been no conversations about the round goby. I haven’t heard it from the marinas or the dealerships.”

He mentioned that “it is too early to tell” how boating traffic will be affected this year.

“I’m waiting on the science,” he said. “I don’t know what the answer is, but it must be unified all the way.”

In recent years, environmental groups and Vermont officials called for New York to keep locks closed, a request that so far hasn’t been answered. And that likely isn’t to change soon. Modley said the task force is “not interested in closing the canal.”

She said the efforts in place “might include a temporary closing of a lock or two to mitigate the spread, if needed.”

For now, the goby remains at bay. As of October it hadn’t moved up the canal, Mahar said.

O’Brien said his Vermont boating association plans to meet with the U.S. Geological Survey to talk, among other things, about more recent sampling.

The Community News Service is part of the Reporting and Documentary Storytelling Program at the University of Vermont.

Image courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey

One thought on “As canal season approaches, what’s going on with the round goby and Lake Champlain?

  1. No celebration of diversity when the “huddled masses yearning to breath free” come to Lake Champlain?
    If only they were human, Biden’s people would be waving them in like a third base coach…

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