13 December 2022, Colorado: Hydrilla is well-known for invading lakes, ponds and waterways, especially across the southeastern U.S. But experts with the Weed Science Society of America (WSSA) say a new strain of the weed has now been found along a 70-mile portion of the 400-mile-long Connecticut River.
Hydrilla is the most widespread of the 19 aquatic weeds on the federal noxious weed list. It also represents a significant ecological and economic risk. That’s especially true for the environmentally rich Connecticut River, which begins on the Canadian border, spans four states and empties into the Long Island Sound.
The river has a major impact on the region and its economy. It supports fish, birds and other wildlife; farms, fisheries, marinas and other businesses; and the recreation and water needs of millions of residents who live and work nearby.
First discovered in 2016, the new hydrilla strain is spreading quickly. Recent surveys show the infestation has produced dense mats of floating hydrilla biomass that now cover nearly 1,000 acres of the river. And the impact is already being felt.
Greg Bugbee, a scientist with the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, says the new invader has begun to replace the native eelgrass that provides a critical habitat for fish, mussels and other aquatic life. It has also begun to clog tributaries and coves along the river – making them impassible to motorboats used for touring, fishing and other water sports. The hydrilla engulfs propellor blades and causes engines to stall – a problem researchers faced firsthand as they conducted their survey of the river.
Bugbee says the new strain is genetically distinct from hydrilla found elsewhere, with differences in how it grows and reproduces. It is hardy and tolerates a wide range of growing conditions. Unlike other hydrilla strains in the U.S., it has yet to be observed producing potato-like tubers that can be buried in the sediment of rivers, lakes and ponds.
That may offer a control advantage, Bugbee says, since tubers can be hard to locate and remove and can sprout after remaining dormant for many years. By comparison, the new strain seems to spread primarily through axillary and basal turions – budlike nodules on the plant’s stem that can break off and root where they drop.
There are still lots of unknowns, though. Scientists don’t yet know how this genotype is best controlled. They also don’t know whether it can harbor neurotoxin-producing algae that can kill eagles, ospreys and coots – something that occurs among the warm-weather hydrilla found in the southeastern U.S. There is also great concern that this strain of hydrilla could be spread to other bodies of water by boats, canoes, kayaks and other sports equipment that can transport small fragments of the weed to new locations.
Fortunately, work is actively underway by various stakeholders to fill the information gap. One of the many agencies engaged in that effort is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, particularly at their Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Michael Greer, the Corps’ program manager for aquatic nuisance species research, says his team is working closely with local, state and regional groups and is spearheading several initiatives that are already underway or on the horizon:
- It has funded a nationwide effort to expand what we know about the genetics of hydrilla – identifying the various strains of the invader, determining their range and measuring the extent of their infestation.
- It has funded research to explore the biology of the new Connecticut River variant and to conduct lab studies to determine how the nuisance species responds to the herbicides registered for control of aquatic weeds.
- It is working with partners from across the region to plan a Connecticut River field study that will serve as a proof of concept in how best to control the new genotype and restore the important ecological and economic benefits of the river.
“In effect, we’re writing a ‘book of knowledge’ that will capture the life history of this new strain, how it spreads and how to manage it effectively,” Greer says. “We hope to bring what we learn from our research into a real world setting and build a body of best management practices.”
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