Volunteer paddlers take on invasive species – sign up for a workshop near you

Programs to be conducted statewide on and around 12 established Michigan water trails.

Map shows the 12 established Michigan water trails.
Program will be conducted statewide on and around 12 established Michigan water trails. Map Credit: Land Information Access Association

National Invasive Species Awareness Week is Feb. 25-March 3, 2019. The goal is to draw attention to invasive species and what individuals can do to stop the spread and introduction of them. This effort is sponsored by a diverse set of partners from across the country. To increase awareness of the issues, Michigan State University Extension and Michigan Sea Grant are publishing articles featuring resources and programs in our state working on invasive species issues. Today’s article features the MI Paddle Stewards program, an initiative funded by the Michigan Invasive Species Grant Program.

As soon as the weather warms, Michigan’s lakes and rivers will once again be bustling with paddlers. Kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddleboards continue to be popular ways for residents and visitors to traverse the state’s many waterways in search of tranquility or adventure.

This year, Michigan Sea Grant will start enlisting those paddlers in a fight to protect the waters they love through the newly created MI Paddle Stewards program.

Hitting the water trail

Paddling offers a number of advantages for folks aiming to get out on the water. Canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards tend to be small enough to navigate shallow or obstructed areas, allowing access to routes typically off-limits to motorized boats. Compared to vessels with motors, paddling crafts tend to be less expensive to buy and store, easy to rent, simple to learn, and quiet enough not to disturb residents and wildlife.

With growing numbers of paddlers hungry for aquatic excursions, more communities are promoting the use of designated water trails. Not just any river or stream can earn the “water trail” label. The term typically describes routes along lakes, rivers, canals, or bays that carry travelers past notable historical, natural, or cultural hotspots. Water trails must be open to non-motorized watercrafts such as kayaks, canoes, rowboats, paddleboards, or sailboats. Trails are also characterized by well-established access and launch points and are actively maintained by a local community or organization. For communities and land managers, it also means that they can promote and utilize existing infrastructure, such as launches and parking areas, in a different way, expanding economic development opportunities.

These parameters come from the Michigan Great Lakes Water Trails Working Group, a crew of volunteers from Michigan Sea Grant, Land Information Access Association and a variety of state agencies, universities, local governments, planning commissions, paddlers, and more. The group hosts a Michigan Water Trails website (www.michiganwatertrails.org), where users can find trail maps, safety information, and plenty of other paddling resources. Before the Michigan Water Trails website, there was no single source for trail managers and users to find statewide information. This website provides a critical link between all of our water trails.

The Michigan Water Trails site catalogs more than 3,000 miles of trails across the state, from a loop around Isle Royale in northern Lake Superior to a Lake Erie trail that crosses the border into Ohio. Many trails move along or toward a lake shore, while others are fully inland.

Unwanted travelers

Unfortunately, paddlers and local economies aren’t the only ones benefiting from Michigan’s growing network of water trails. Every canoe, kayak, or paddleboard pulled out of the water could be harboring hitchhikers: aquatic invasive species.

Aquatic invasive species are plants, fish, snails, viruses, and other organisms that move into and colonize ecosystems where they don’t belong, usually damaging native species and water quality in the process.

More often than not, the aquatic invaders reach new territories with the help of unknowing humans. They get transported as live bait, planted in flower gardens, imported for fish ponds, carried in the bellies of shipping freighters — or snagged on kayak rudders and stranded in puddles at the bottom of poorly drained canoes. If a non-native stowaway is still alive when the boat splashes into the next water body, the invader could find itself in fresh territory.

A single plant fragment or virus probably can’t spark a full-blown invasion. But enough paddle crafts carrying aquatic invaders — especially into water bodies that are only recently open to public use — could change an ecosystem forever.

Natural resource managers have worked hard to help motorized boaters avoid transporting invasive species. Season after season, volunteers have camped out at boat launches and installed informational signs encouraging boaters to clean, drain, dry, and inspect their boats before heading to another dock.

Until now, similar efforts in Michigan haven’t really targeted paddlers, who may not use the same boat launches as motorized boaters. Thanks to the MI Paddle Stewards program from Michigan Sea Grant and Michigan State University Extension, with a $200,000 grant from the state, that’s about to change.

MI Paddle Stewards begins

Through a series of training workshops, paddlers will become allies in the fight against aquatic invasive species. They’ll learn how to detect and report any invasive species they spot while paddling a water trail. They will also learn how to clean their crafts to avoid giving invaders a free ride. These new ecosystem ambassadors will be encouraged to pass their knowledge to other paddlers. Because of this program, at least 300 extra sets of trained eyes and ears will be out there searching for new invaders, aiding in the states’ ability for early detection and rapid response. Those interested in enrolling in the 2019 training workshops should check the Michigan Sea Grant event listings in mid-March for registration links to individual workshops.

The program launches with twelve trainings workshops in 2019:

  • July 26 in Cheboygan on the Lake Huron North Shore Blueways
  • July 29 in Rapid City on the Chain of Lakes Water Trail
  • Aug. 1* in Tuscarora Township on the Inland Waterway
  • Aug. 3 in Jackson on the Upper Grand River Water Trail
  • Aug. 10 in Clay Township on the Blueways of St. Clair
  • Aug. 11 in Mt. Clemens on the Clinton River Water Trail
  • Sept. 7 in Benton Harbor on the Paw Paw River Water Trail
  • Sept. 14 in Hessel on the Lake Huron North Shore Water Trail
  • Sept. 15* in Brimley on the Lake Superior East Water Trail
  • Sept. 16 in Sault Ste. Marie on the St. Marys River Island Explorer
  • Sept. 30 in Gibraltar on the Detroit Heritage River Water Trail
  • Date TBD: July or Aug. in Menominee on the Lake Michigan Water Trai|
    *Tentative date. Dates and locations are subject to change.

Additional invasive species resources

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and its MSU Extension, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 33 university-based programs.

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