Minnesota’s walleye, bass, northern pike, and lake trout fishing opener is next weekend, and aquatic invasive species (AIS) will be on many people’s minds.
2021 not only brought us a new way of life with guidelines surrounding COVID-19, but the Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center at the University of Minnesota has also created us a new resource — an online dashboard called AIS Explorer — that predicts the introduction risk of aquatic invasive species and identifies the optimal placement of watercraft inspection locations for water bodies across Minnesota.
Amy Kinsley, an assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota, answers questions on what the latest research on AIS shows, what boaters and anglers alike can do to stop the spread of AIS, as well as the new AIS Explorer dashboard.
Q: What aquatic invasive species are in Minnesota, and are there any new ones of great concern?
Kinsley: Aquatic invasive species (AIS) are non-native aquatic animals, pathogens or plants that have been introduced to a new environment, beyond where they are typically found. Depending on their characteristics and the extent of their introduction, they can negatively affect natural resources, human health and the economy. Unfortunately, Minnesota’s waterways are threatened by a number of AIS. Some more notable species include zebra mussels, Asian and common carp, and plants such as starry stonewort, curly-leaf pondweed, and Eurasian watermilfoil.
Decorative moss balls infested with zebra mussels are a new concern in Minnesota. These small two-to-five-inch balls of green algae are sold at pet stores for aquarium decorations. This means that some aquarium owners may be inadvertently harboring zebra mussels in their tanks at home. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is asking people who have recently purchased them to dispose of them by freezing them or putting them in hot water, salt or bleach, then placing them in a bag and in the trash. They also recommend disinfecting the tank and accessories after disposing of the moss balls.
Although not necessarily a new AIS, one worth mentioning given the upcoming fishing opener is spiny water flea, a small freshwater zooplankton. Spiny water fleas are important because they can impact populations of native zooplankton, leading to lower food availability for fish. Spiny water fleas can spread to uninfested lakes through fishing and boating equipment.
One last point worth highlighting this year is the importance of properly disposing of baitfish. Since baitfish can harbor pathogens that can cause disease in native fish, it is important to never release unused bait and bait water into the waterways, but instead dispose of bait in a trash can on land and dump your bait water on land far from the shore.
Q: What does your latest work show on AIS?
Kinsley: My recent efforts have focused on outlining a statewide surveillance and early detection system for AIS in Minnesota in response to a request by the state legislature. The program was described in detail in a report which outlined critical components of an effective program along with any necessary policy and funding changes. The report was submitted to the legislature in January 2021 and is available in its entirety here.
Within the report, we discussed the challenges of surveillance and early detection. We also discussed the history and benefits of decision support tools and we introduced our new decision-support tool called AIS Explorer. This user-friendly, online platform helps AIS managers make efficient decisions about surveillance activities and watercraft inspections.
Q: Why is the AIS Explorer dashboard necessary and what existing gap does it help fill in Minnesota?
Kinsley: Although many AIS currently inhabit our lakes and waterways, only about 8% of water bodies are currently infested, which is an important point because we have the opportunity to protect the remaining 92%. AIS Explorer is a free, publicly-accessible online tool that can support us in those efforts considering that there is a limited amount of money, people, and time available to do so. The AIS Explorer dashboard has two main functions: it helps 1) AIS managers visualize risk of new infestations to plan where to conduct surveillance activities, and 2) AIS managers plan their watercraft inspection programs by identifying the optimal locations for inspection stations. The tool is a result of the collaborative efforts of researchers from a variety of backgrounds and I urge anyone interested in AIS to check it out.
Q: In the age of COVID-19, what can you say about the parallels between COVID-19 transmission and AIS spread?
Kinsley: There is a lot of overlap when considering how COVID-19 and AIS are spread. COVID-19 showed us how important it is to identify infected individuals, even if they are not showing symptoms. By contact tracing and testing public health officials were able to use data to gain a clearer picture of the situation in order to base decisions on. That is similar to AIS, where infested waterbodies may not be identified early in the infestation. However, by conducting surveillance and having information of the location of AIS infestations, managers can make better decisions about how to respond and communicate that response plan more clearly. In both cases, slowing the spread of COVID-19 and AIS, we can all do our part by participating in the recommended prevention activities.
Q: What is the No. 1 thing people can do to help in the fight against AIS, especially this year?
Kinsley: One of the most important things that people can do is to clean, drain, and dry. By being familiar with and following state laws that help prevent the spread of AIS, including cleaning aquatic plants and any debris from boats, draining all water from your boat, removing drain plugs, wiping out residual water in live wells and bait buckets, and properly disposing of baitfish, we can all play a role in protecting our waterways from AIS.