Scientists this week confirmed the arrival of the spiny water flea in Lake Champlain. The tiny pest is not actually a flea. Rather, it is a crustacean. Despite its size of less than half a fingernail, it could have a huge impact on Lake Champlain, biologists warn.
"It's quite significant," said Shawn Good, a fisheries biologist with the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department.
Good told New England Cable News he had feared for a while the barb-tailed pest would arrive in Lake Champlain after it was found a few years ago in New York's Lake George. Good said he expects the spiny water flea will steal the food newly-hatched fish eat in Lake Champlain, impacting their habits.
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It does not have serious impacts on humans’ health or safety, aside from causing nuisances, Good indicated. But the spiny water flea may make the waters of Lake Champlain murkier over time by altering the lake's ecosystem.
"There's nothing we can do in terms of spiny water flea eradication," Good explained. "They're here to stay."
Anglers like charter boat captain Brian Dunkling will likely feel the spiny water flea's presence more than most. Dunkling, who operates a fishing boat called Sure Strike Charters out of Shelburne Shipyard, said he has experienced spiny water fleas glomming onto lines as he is out trolling for fish. That causes friction and clogs, Dunkling explained.
"You're putting stress on your line, and eventually you're going to ruin your whole spool line," Dunkling said. "We've got a substantial amount of [the spiny water fleas] coming our way."
The spiny water flea is not native to North America, said Meg Modley of the Lake Champlain Basin Program. Modley told NECN it likely hitchhiked here, essentially, by attaching to cargo vessels coming across the ocean from Europe or Asia. The creature then likely spread from ports to inland bodies of water by attaching to other boats, she said.
"Water can carry a number of invasive critters we can't see with the naked eye," Modley added. "Now that we know we have spiny water flea in Lake Champlain, we want to make sure it doesn't spread to other water bodies."
Modley urged outdoors enthusiasts to make sure to drain, flush, and disinfect compartments in boats and wash down other equipment they may use in Lake Champlain before they transport that gear over land to other waterways. That could stop the spread of the spiny water flea, she said.
The spiny water flea may be the newest invader to Lake Champlain, but Modley said it's the fiftieth that doesn't belong here.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a longtime advocate for the health of Lake Champlain, issued the following statement upon learning the spiny water flea had been detected in at least two locations in the lake this week:
"It is terrible news that another invasive species -- and one with proven potential to seriously harm the ecosystem -- has reached Lake Champlain. In recent years this has been an ecological body blow that has unfolded in slow motion. We have known that this species was headed our way, and it’s one reason I have worked hard to fund invasive species prevention efforts through the Lake Champlain Basin Program. These include boat launch stewards around Lake Champlain to inspect boats and educate the public, and creation of a permanent invasive species filter in the Champlain Canal. Unfortunately, now we have more evidence of why we need to accelerate our prevention work, especially on the Champlain Canal, as well as educational efforts to help prevent transporting such unwanted hitchhikers into our Lake and waterways."