July 3, 2011

Aliens among us

With so much riding on the eradication of invasive aquatic plants, protectors of Maine's fresh waters remain ever vigilant.

By Beth Quimby bquimby@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

NAPLES - The S.S. Libra may not have the elegant lines of a cabin cruiser, and its plodding pace is not much faster than an aquatic turtle's. But the vessel is the first line of defense in the war against the variable leaf milfoil on the Songo River.

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Diver Dan Bishop holds up some of the milfoil he is removing from the Songo River in Naples.

Photos by John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Divers Christian Oren, left, and Dan Bishop of the Lakes Environmental Association, jump into the water to remove milfoil from the Songo River, the latest battleground in the 10-year fight against invasive plants.

Additional Photos Below

This summer, the boat and its four-man crew are stationed just south of Songo Lock, engaged in a fight to keep the aquatic plant pest from invading recently won territory to the north. Although the crew is highly experienced in milfoil eradication, the stakes are high and the outcome far from certain.

Keeping Maine's fresh waters free of invasive weeds is crucial, not only to the health of native plants and animals, but also to the state's economy, say those on the front lines. Maine's lakes generate about $3.5 billion annually in tourism spending, increased property values and recreational boating activity.

"This impacts every lake in Maine," said Peter Lowell, executive director of the nonprofit Lakes Environmental Association in Bridgton.

The southern Songo River is the latest battleground in a 10-year campaign to beat back milfoil from its northern reaches and the waters of Brandy Pond, part of a roughly 40-mile stretch of recreational water extending from Harrison on the north of Long Lake to Standish on Sebago Lake's southern tip.

Led by the lake association, efforts to clean out the weed north of the lock have been successful. But milfoil continues to proliferate along the mile-long section of the river south of the lock.

Last summer's warm, dry weather triggered both an explosion of milfoil below the lock and a surge in boat traffic. Inspectors at the lock were removing armfuls of milfoil that was entangled in the propellers of passing boats.

Alarmed that milfoil would regain a foothold north of the lock, the association launched a campaign to encourage boaters to stay south of it. Although state officials denied a request to close the lock, they installed more channel markers in the river to keep boaters away from the worst of the milfoil and agreed to pick up the cost of more boat inspections.

Similar battles to control or eradicate invasive weeds are taking place on lakes, ponds and rivers across southern Maine where infestations have been found.

Compared with other states, Maine remains relatively free of invasive aquatic plants, which have been discovered in only 33 lakes. But the race is on to keep the half-dozen species of invasives seen so far from spreading to the rest of Maine's 5,700 lakes and ponds.

Public funding doesn't begin to cover the costs of controlling the problem, said Lowell. The major federal source is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which grants eligible states, including Maine, up to $30,000 a year for invasive plant measures.

Maine raises about $1.1 million annually through milfoil stickers -- $10 for residents and $20 for nonresidents -- required on all power boats on fresh water. The money covers the cost of three Department of Environmental Protection workers who coordinate training and education. It also funds small grants for boat inspectors and other efforts.

But the work is largely performed by thousands of volunteers and lake associations.

"We depend on the many eyes out there," said Paul Gregory, environmental specialist at the Maine DEP's invasive aquatic plants program.

The most damaging invasive species, the Eurasian milfoil, is a plant that grows in water up to 20 feet deep. Its tendrils rise to the surface and form thick mats that choke out native plants.

Milfoil ruins swimming and drives out cold-water fish such as trout and landlocked salmon. It can also cause problems for public drinking-water systems that rely on lakes.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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The team from the Lakes Environmental Association is removing milfoil from the Songo River in Naples using the S.S. Libra, a watercraft fitted with a suction and filtration system. Invasive plants have been found in 33 of the state’s 5,700 lakes and ponds.

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