GUEST COLUMN: Address Erie Canal invasive species now

A scene of the Mohawk River in Amsterdam on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017. (Gazette File Photo)
A scene of the Mohawk River in Amsterdam on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017. (Gazette File Photo)

By J.I Garver, PhD
For The Daily Gazette

In July 2021 the state Department of Environmental Conservation announced that four specimens of round goby, a small drab invasive fish, had been captured in the Hudson River below the confluence with the Mohawk River.

This announcement signaled that this small unremarkable fish had just achieved a remarkable feat.

Starting in Europe, it invaded the Great Lakes, and then successfully used the Erie Canal to expand into the Hudson-Mohawk watershed. Now, we can only watch as damage occurs.

The round goby is a new and serious threat to New York state fishery because they reproduce rapidly, they feed on fish eggs, and they carry disease.

The warning from the round goby invasion is clear: We have failed to address invasive species in the Erie Canal corridor.

Will the round goby harm to the already threatened striped bass fishery?

The Reimagine the Canals effort is aimed at bringing the Erie Canal corridor into the 21st century. In some ways, the effort is guiding the transition from a commercial transportation system to a recreational corridor.

But because the canal connects watersheds, canal management has a special responsibility to ensure that the canal does not impair aquatic health and ecosystems.

Unfortunately, aquatic invasive species are doing just that.

With the demise of barge traffic, increase in recreation and the superimposed effects of climate change, one thing is clear — the third century of this historic waterway will look very different than the first two centuries.

The Reimagine the Canals Task Force, evaluated options for aquatic invasive species (AIS) mitigation, but no specific recommendations were made.

The list of aquatic invaders that have used the “Invasive Superhighway” is long and the cost has been high.

Zebra mussels, alewife, sea lamprey, and other invaders have raced across New York unobstructed – and in fact facilitated – by the Erie Canal corridor.

If modern day regulations were considered, the Erie Canal would likely never be permitted because of the disruption that would occur to the ecosystem, including the valuable New York state fishery.

What is next?

If Asian carp invade the Great Lakes and then the Erie Canal, the sport fishery in New York may well be irreparably harmed.

The Reimagine the Canals effort was partly focused on strategic AIS mitigation along the Erie Canal.

A key deterrent location in the canal would be at Rome, and this barrier would separate the Great Lakes watershed from the Mohawk-Hudson watershed.

Experts involved in this work agreed that a barrier at this drainage divide needs to be a priority.

Engineering has come a long way in the last century, and we can look elsewhere to see that an invasive barrier can simultaneously stop AIS and protect Canal heritage and recreational boating.

As in the past, boaters in New York will need to continue to do their part to protect our waterways.

Taking on aquatic invasive species is a shared responsibility that should be supported by all stakeholders, including those who boat, fish, canoe, swim or otherwise enjoy recreational waterways in New York state.

J.I Garver, PhD, is professor of Geology at Union College in Schenectady. He was appointed a member of the “Reimagine the Canals” Task Force, which recently designed a road map for the future of the Erie Canal corridor. He is involved in studies of water quality and flooding in the Mohawk watershed. He also is author of “Notes from a Watershed”, a newsletter that covers issues in the Mohawk and Hudson rivers.

Categories: Guest Column, Opinion

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