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Spiny water flea. Photo: J. Liebig, NOAA
Spiny water flea. Photo: J. Liebig, NOAA

Spiny water flea poised to invade Lake Champlain

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Spiny water flea isn't actually a flea at all. It's an invasive zoplankton that cuts down on food supply for fish and annoys anglers.

Spiny water flea's in the Great Lakes. In 2008, it made its way to Great Sacandaga Lake, and then to Lake George in 2012. Now, it's headed for Lake Champlain.

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Reported by

Sarah Harris
Reporter and Producer

Timothy Mihuc directs the Lake Champlain Research Institute at SUNY Plattsburgh. He says it’s just a matter of time before spiny water flea invades Lake Champlain. 

"Chances are there are some organisms that have made it into to Lake Champlain we just haven’t established a population yet."

Mihuc says the canal system that connects the Hudson River and the lake is "full of spiny water fleas. And this year, we documented a big expansion in that population in the feeder canal." 

 It could travel through Lake George, which drains directly into Lake Champlain. And boaters could even unknowingly transport spiny water flea when they move their boats from one lake to another. 

So, why does it matter? Because spiny water fleas disrupts the food web. 

"spiny water flea is kind of a nasty predator on all the other zooplankton," Mihuc explains. "And it has this long spine, hence its name, which prevents fish from feeding on it effectively. So it’s going to eat all the zooplankton and the fish will have a more difficult time feeding on it." 

That means fish won’t have as big a food supply. And that means they might be smaller, they might hatch less eggs. 

"It’s kind of calories in a person," says Mihuc. "I’m currently on a diet eating less pasta, so in theory, i’m losing a little bit of my biomass." 

But imagine that Mihuc wasn’t eating pasta because he’s on a diet. Imagine he couldn’t get any pasta, because spiny waterfleas were was eating it all. 

And, if it’s not enough to guzzle a lake’s pasta — ok, plankton supply — spiny water flea is a major annoyance for fishermen. 

"Spiny water flea will clog your fishing line. They have little hook at the end of their spine and they get caught on fishing line very easily. And I’ve been fishing on lakes with spiny water flea and when you pull on your line, it looks like it has cotton on it. It’s definitely something everyone would complain about, they wouldn’t like it. It wouldn’t be a positive fishing experience." 

And that’s not good for the human economy. Fishing on Lake Champlain generates millions of dollars in revenue. 

"This has potential to impact that economy. So this is the kind of invader we really should’ve worked aggressively to keep out."

Mihuc says people can help prevent invasive species from spreading by washing their boats and letting their gear dry out before heading to another lake. 

But in the end, spiny water flea is coming to Lake Champlain.

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