Monday, January 14, 2013

An Unfair War with Aquatic Invasive Species


The Importance of Aquatic Vegetation Abundance Mapping and Long Term Monitoring from a Layman’s Perspective

 

From a layman’s point of view it can be very difficult to understand the importance of lake weeds as they relate to aquatic invasive species (AIS).  I should know . . . I’m a layman.  I started asking questions, and it turns out it’s a bit more complex than I thought.  Sure, I want the Minnesota Lakes I love to be clear with tons of fish, but do we really need these weeds?  Of course we need some “weeds” (“aquatic plants”), and, if you get rid of too many you can throw the entire lake ecology out of balance for years.  When I asked how much is a good amount and how it is being tracked in Minnesota I was disappointed with the answer.  During my time working for the software company Contour Innovations, focusing on automated lake mapping, I've had the pleasure of working with some of the most talented aquatic biologists in the Country, both in-house and through our customer base.  I’ve spent the last few years learning the language and attempting to catch on from a neutral, outsider’s perspective.  Slowly, I realized that the complicated topic could be effectively communicated to anyone that cares about and has an interest in water quality . . . which should technically be everyone.

Let’s face it, the DNR has done a great job demonizing invasive species for good reason and with some positive results.  There’s more awareness now and budgets in place to attempt to manage the spread and introduction.  But, eradicating AIS once introduced into a lake is only half the story.  . .

I’ve learned a lot over the last few years but I still had some questions:  Why should our customers really care about the total habitat when Eurasian Water Milfoil has already invaded their lake?  Don’t they just want to know where the Milfoil is so they can get rid of it?  If a monitoring program can’t distinguish between species does it still have a use in aquatic research or management?  I originally thought that identifying where the Milfoil is located is key, but I actually found the opposite to be true.  If we live by the idea that “AIS are bad and should be eliminated at all costs,” wouldn’t the results be easier to obtain? 

The concepts of ecosystem balance are extremely complex but vital.  After early discussions with our biologists it become clear to me that abundance is one of the most important metrics to consider when monitoring water quality and lake health.  This remains true if an invasive species has already been introduced or it’s just knocking on the doorstep.  We need to focus our analysis on total abundance and the overall aquatic habitat instead of speciation as a sole predictor of lake health.  What really matters is knowing if your lake is at risk of the negative impacts from invasive species and if your lake ecology is within certain “healthy” parameters.  A lake’s resilience to invasive species and current water quality regime is going to be a major indicator of lake health and prospects for the future.  It’s also important to quantify your management interventions and determine if they are having their desired effect.  These were difficult questions to answer in the past. 

Invasive species are coming.   We can try to stop it but more likely we’re just delaying it.  The reason these species are thriving is because they’re designed to thrive.  With the right conditions they can easily steal the resources required to grow from other plants, effectively eliminating competition from the lake.  They’re opportunistic and the microscopic amount required for infestation is astonishing.  We should accept this fact and be realistic about what we’re dealing with.  It doesn’t mean we roll over and stop the cleaning stations or citations for failing to drain your bilge, but a proactive management and monitoring plan is a good idea.   

Let’s understand our lake’s resilience and identify if it’s at risk.  Let’s get our resource managers identifying which lakes need close attention and devote our stretched budgets to the ones that need it.  The chips are already stacked against us and without good quantitative data, they’re stacked even further.   With mismanaged resources it becomes a war we can’t win.

At a certain level of productivity, an invasive species will win the war against a diverse ecological aquatic habitat and turn into a lake of a single species.  This isn't a good thing for any lake ecosystem or water quality.  It’s all about balance and a healthy lake habitat can help keep an infestation in check.  It’s also possible that certain management techniques could push a lake towards a higher risk scenario if decisions were made without quality abundance data.  Understanding the risks of this happening are key in designing a management plan to be proactive instead of reactive.  Identifying hot spots in abundance and potential causes could be more important than identifying where the invasive species exist.  The best thing is that it’s never too early or late to start. 

The entire ecosystem is tied together.   The cumulative effect of lake stressors can lead to the low resilience required for an invasive species to thrive.  Identifying the stressors and dealing with them could prove more valuable than eliminating an invasive species.  Much like a healthy body can deal with the flu virus better than an unhealthy one, a lake with good shorelines, healthy fish communities, and healthy diversity of plant abundance can keep an infestation in check.  In certain conditions, taking plants out of the lake might be a bad decision that could have a negative effect on lake ecology depending on the lake regime and characteristics of the lake.  

In fact, there are ideal targets and optimal or idea habitat levels and conditions.  Our own Ray Valley, a 10 year veteran of the Minnesota DNR, has devoted a majority of his career to habitat monitoring and interactions between plant abundance, fish, lake resilience and relationships to water quality.  His research on ecosystem balance, namely lake resilience, is instrumental in understanding what’s really happening in a lake and when lakes are at risk.  Much of this is actually tied to plant abundance and changes over time.

Through a long term monitoring program it’s possible to identify the red flags.  Plant abundance growing at deeper depths from year to year could show an increase in water clarity allowing more light penetration.  This might be caused by a recent zebra mussel infestation or a shift in the lakes ecology.  Regardless, something as simple as the depth aquatic plants grow tells us a ton about the direction the lake is going.  In another example, unusual increases in plant abundance in specific areas could indicate, among other things, a home with a leaking septic tank on the lake, a change in the landscape, changes in sedimentation, a run-off issue or a bigger problem upstream.  All of these, left unchecked, could cause more problems for the lakes balance and resilience leading to higher risk of negative impacts of an invasive species introduction.   These changes don’t show up in a visual reconnaissance, presence/absence surveys with a rake, or a single map.   But getting these items resolved could be the management technique that keeps an invasive species from dominating a lake habitat in the future and early detection of these problems could prevent an unfair fight against AIS in the future.

Complete dominance of an invasive species is another story but it’s also the exception.  I’ve seen a number of groups continue to dump massive amounts of money into management without quantitative goals or the ability to effectively quantify the whether they are meeting their management expectations.  Maybe we’re not asking the right types of questions or maybe the technology didn’t exist to get the information we need.  No one is at fault yet.  Once the dialog shifts away from hysterical talking points and towards pragmatic management approaches, we’ll start making real strides in getting ahead of AIS and start achieving improvements in our precious lakes.

So where do we start?  With crowd-sourced solutions like ciBioBase.com we can all start getting the volume of data we really need to have this realistic and proactive discussion.  With cloud computing we’ve broadened the base of individuals that can participate allowing passionate home owner groups to take matters into their own hands instead of waiting for an understaffed DNR.   Aquatic plant abundance maps that took a highly trained hydrographer a week or more and to complete can be done by anyone with a boat, a depth finder and GPS, and 20 minutes for computers do the work of processing the collected data.  This is the future of monitoring and lake management.  There are no longer barriers to getting the kind of data we need for identifying the red flags, eliminating stressors and improving lakes across Minnesota and the globe.
So, let’s understand the lakes heartbeat first.  Let’s get a clear picture of the lakes resilience and its current status for optimal health.  Then we move forward to a future with cleaner lakes.

This article represents and aggregation of my thoughts as I’ve journeyed through this industry and tried to learn the ropes.   This is merely an appeal to think differently about our lakes, expectations, and what the future holds.  The future of our most important resource is brightest if we take a step back, think about what we’re doing and where we need to go.
 
Let’s have those realistic and proactive discussions with real data . . .
                                                         -Matt Johnson, CEO, Contour Innovations, LLC

 

CONTOUR INNOVATIONS AND CIBIOBASE

ciBioBase (ciBioBase.com) removes the time and labor required to create aquatic maps! ciBioBase leverages log file formats recorded to SD cards using today’s Lowrance™ brand depth finders and chart plotters. Data you collect while on the water is uploaded to an online account where it is processed by our servers automatically! We rely on automation to make vegetation mapping cost effective by reducing the technical skills, staff, and hours to produce vegetation abundance maps from raw sonar collection. With the human element gone, you get accurate and objective mapping at lightening speeds! The result is a uniform and objective output all over the world!
I’m proud to be a part of this step in the right direction of a positive future for lake management and overall quality of our most precious resource.  We’re shaking things up and this is a time when everyone benefits.  We work as a huge team to define the best uses and features of one of our products, BioBase, to change the lake management industry.  We’re using expert opinions and powerful cloud computing to create amazing contour and vegetation maps and gain important quantitative metrics of lake health.

Our Company has a culture that considers its social responsibility and contribution.  Our sales team is motivated by how they are changing the future of lakes and resources management.  I was most intrigued by what we might be contributing to the future of a resource that means so much to me.  I’m still intrigued!

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