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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Red Alert!

What to Do When Aliens Come to a Waterway Near You

By Tamia Nelson

August 14, 2007

You heard it here first: Canoe Country is under siege, and the Threat Assessment Team is hoisting the red warning flags. Their message? Enemy aliens are invading our waters. That sounds alarming, doesn't it? And it is. How can we fight back? Let's begin by spotlighting the poster boys of this alien invasion: the Dreissena twins, aka zebra and quagga mussels (Dreissena polymorpha and D. bugensis, to those in the know). These bad boys cling to boat hulls, pilings, and other underwater surfaces, multiplying shamelessly and displacing native mussels. The predictable result? Localized extinctions of native species. Moreover, the twin troublemakers infiltrate water pipes of every description, from municipal water-treatment intakes to power-plant coolant systems to the raw-water intake pipes on outboard motors. That's not the worst news, however. Quaggas are also bioterrorists, known to harbor Clostridium botulinum, the organism responsible for botulism. Yellow perch chow down on quaggas — it seems that these popular panfish have developed a taste for the tiny mussels over the years — and then … you guessed it … the botulism organism moves up the food chain. I'll bet you can also guess who's at the top of the chain. Us, that's who. This certainly puts the traditional shore lunch in a different perspective, doesn't it? Bon appétit!

OK. That's the threat scenario in brief. And just where did these alien invaders come from? No one is saying for sure, but it's thought that the Dreissena twins were stowaways, hitchhiking from the Old World to the New in the ballast water of ocean-going ships. In any case, they were first ID'd when they established a forward outpost in the Great Lakes. But they weren't content to stay put. They had big plans. They didn't just want to move in. They were determined to take over. And they're following through. In fact, they've already pushed inland as far as the Colorado watershed. How did they move so far, so fast? That's painfully obvious. They've made unwitting collaborators of their natural enemies — boaters. Yes, you heard it right. People like you and me are aiding and abetting the enemy. Here's one way it can happen:

You've had a great day kayaking on a lake a couple of hours from home — the water was so clear, nothing at all like it used to be! — but the sun's sliding down toward the western horizon now. You and your buddies are tired and hungry, and you've got a long drive ahead. So you don't waste time. You haul out, lift your boats onto your roof racks, and lash 'em down. Then you toss your gear into the back of your cars and drive off. A stream of water sluices down your windshield as you hit the first bump, reminding you that you didn't do a very good job of draining the bilge. Still, you figure a couple of pints of water can't hurt anything, right? Wrong. The next day you're on your way to another lake, and you're still carrying some water around in the bilge of your boat. Now for the bad news: water isn't all you're carrying.


The Big Picture

A healthy ecosystem is a little bit like the small town I grew up in. People knew their neighbors, and while it would be stretching things to say that everybody always got along with everybody else, feuds were rare and serious crime was almost nonexistent. Moreover, everyone had a role in the town's economic life. The railroad linked local farmers to their markets. The little service stations (gas stations did a lot more than sell coffee and gas back then; they also fixed cars), soda fountains, and corner stores provided after-school jobs for high school kids, while the seed plant and the hospital employed the kids' parents. But the times, they were already a-changin'. A new interstate brought an influx of urban migrants, each one of them hoping to escape the crime and congestion of the city. They didn't work in the seed plant and they didn't buy their groceries at the corner market. They had jobs in offices in the city and shopped in suburban supermarkets. They also had a lot more money than the locals. Before long, the seed plant closed. Next, the freight depot shut down, and the trains stopped running. Then the markets went, one by one. And the service stations gave way to convenience stores. Finally, the hospital shut its doors. The old families who'd lived in the place for generations sold up or died out. Their kids moved on. Within a couple of decades, the small town that I knew was gone. In its stead was just another bedroom community. A place to sleep, but not a place to live and work. Real life now went on somewhere else.

Alien species can have much the same effect on a waterway. They disrupt the "economic" fabric of the ecosystem. Native species are displaced. In some cases, they die out altogether. A new balance is struck, and the new order may be much less diverse — and much less stable — than the old. The case of purple loosestrife is instructive. It's a beautiful plant, an escaped ornamental with roots in the Old World, that can now be seen in wetlands and along road margins throughout Canoe Country. But its beauty conceals a dark secret. Purple loosestrife elbows out cattails and other natives, with results that are often hard to predict. Sometimes species diversity plummets and productivity declines. At other times, diversity and productivity are unchanged, but the character — species composition — of the watery neighborhood alters profoundly. One thing is certain: change of some sort is inevitable whenever an alien muscles in, and native species usually bear the brunt.

What does this mean to paddlers? Perhaps it won't make much difference to canoeists and kayakers who paddle purely for exercise, and for whom the natural world is simply a backdrop against which they test their muscles and lungs. But for the rest of us, and especially for wildlife watchers and birders, any change in the familiar waterscape is likely to be wrenching. While change can't be avoided in the long term — natural equilibria are always fluid, and change is truly the natural order of things — too-rapid change gives us paddlers no time to adjust our mental maps. The anglers and hunters among our ranks are also vulnerable. Wetting a fly or throwing a spinner is pointless if your favorite fish have moved on or died off. And a duck blind is a cold and lonely place when there are no birds gabbling overhead.

Alien invaders trigger larger concerns, of course. Wildfire risk increases following infestations of pine bark and Asian longhorned beetles. Eurasian water milfoil chokes waterways across North America, closing down recreational beaches and disrupting operations at water treatment plants. Yet this is just a small sample of the many threats. The list of alien invaders is already long, and it grows longer every day. Can anything be done to stem the tide? Yes. While the invaders have many allies besides recreational boaters — even climate change plays a role — canoeists and kayakers can do much to …


Avoid Helping the Enemy

Even in life-or-death struggles, we humans like to believe we're playing by the rules. Maybe that's why almost every navy has a Code of Conduct, either express or implicit. And our navy of small-boat enthusiasts is no exception. As I see it, in the war against alien invaders, the paddler's Code of Conduct is really pretty simple:

  • Assume that the enemy is everywhere. Just because you don't see alien invaders, that doesn't mean they're not around. Look for official warning signs at the put-in, too. Regulatory agencies often post advisory notices near infested waters. Follow their recommendations to the letter.

  • Clean up your act! Drain all bilge water from your boat before hitting the road for home (or the next waterway), being sure to leave yourself enough time at day's end to sponge out the last few ounces. Remove and dry float bags, then dry the undersurfaces of the deck and the recesses of storage compartments. If at all possible, let your boat's hull bake dry in the sun. Clean off all traces of mud and waterweed, too — and don't forget to clean your gear. Even your shoes can carry invaders to new territories. And give Fido a rub-down with a towel, while you're at it.

  • Don't pick up hitchhikers. In particular, don't dump live bait that you hauled in from Outside into backcountry ponds or streams, and don't transport firewood from one place to another. If you use a water-cooled outboard, drain the raw-water cooling system thoroughly at the end of the day, then flush it with clean water when you get home. (Don't know how? Many state fish and wildlife agencies offer booklets to help you.) Sponge water from all the recesses in gear cases and cowlings, as well.

  • Join your waterway's "Neighborhood Watch." Learn as much as you can about alien threats to your local waters, and report any enemy sightings to authorities. Include photos whenever possible.


There you have it. A paddler's Code of Conduct in the war against alien invaders. Sure, it's a nuisance to have to follow a set of rules like these, but what's the alternative? Our enemies need help to carry out their plan of conquest, and all too often they get that help from us. It's high time we stopped collaborating. We can't rid our waters of the Dreissena twins, or wave a wand and make Eurasian water milfoil go away, or rip out all the purple loosestrife from every road margin and wetland. But at least we can avoid giving aid and comfort to the enemy in the years to come. And that's a start.

Zebra and quagga mussels. Purple loosestrife. Eurasian water milfoil. These alien invaders have already established beachheads in Canoe Country, and more are on the way. For far too long paddlers have been sitting back, content to leave the fight to others. Now it's time we joined the ranks of the Resistance. Let the paddler's Code of Conduct be your guide. Your Waterway Needs YOU. Today. So what are you waiting for?

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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