College students help fight invasive species

Aug 1, 2012

All summer long, the Department of Environmental Conservation is stationing college students at boat launches around New York with the mission to stop the spread of invasive species.

The college students are called launch stewards. The $75,000  program is a top priority for the DEC, says Mary Penney of New York Sea Grant, a government coastal cooperative.

Penney supervises the half-dozen stewards in central New York and says the program is intended to make sure invasive species in one lake don't spread into others by hitchhiking on boats.

The steward's job is to educate boaters about invasive species, as well as assist in boat inspections. They'll be on the lookout for plants like hydrilla, or water thyme, that can wreak havoc on native ecosystems.

Plants are known to catch in propellers, but steward Nick Spira says they sometimes hide where you wouldn't expect.

"Most of it, actually, you see on the trailer, not necessarily the boat. The boat doesn't really carry too much. It's the trailer from the site to site. The wheels and the axle -- and you'll pull them out and you won't even notice them because they are underneath," said Spira.

Of particular concern is hydrilla. The Asian plant's aggressive growth is known for choking out native wildlife -- but also for making boating and fishing almost impossible. It was discovered in the Cayuga Lake inlet last fall.

Steward Shelby Persons says she's especially alert to the threat.

"It's definitely scary to meet someone who’s been to Cayuga Inlet. You pay more attention to their boat and make sure there's no hydrilla," said Persons.

So far, it seems to be working. There are no reports of hydrilla taking root in any other lakes. Stewards say they spend most of their time on other plants, like water chestnut and Eurasian water milfoil. The stewards are also gathering data on the species they find.