UTICA — Water chestnut grows so thick in some Central New York rivers and lakes that it thwarts people who want to have fun.
“It has the ability to completely dominate waterways to a point where you can’t go swimming, you can’t run a fishing lure through it,” said Rob Williams, coordinator for the St. Lawrence Eastern Lake Ontario Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management. “It’s even difficult to get a canoe or a boat through it.”
Water chestnut belongs in Europe, Asia and Africa, yet it’s found in 60 percent of New York, Williams said. It’s particularly a problem in the Mohawk River, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
And it’s far from the only invasive species threatening to crowd out native flora and fauna.
Purple loosestrife, which colors the Utica marsh every summer; Zebra mussels; Phragmites, or the common reed; and round gobies, a fish, are among species of concern in Central New York, according to the DEC.
The emerald ash borer is expected to make its deadly way to Central New York — and most of the rest of the country — eventually, killing all the ash trees it meets.
The state wants the invasions to end. It already fights them through regulations such as restrictions on the transport of firewood and with eradication efforts, such as releasing beetles that eat loosestrife and using herbicide on hogweed.
New York also is the only state to have a network of eight regional PRISMS, which are partnerships of interested groups and individuals working together on invasive species management. Early detection and action is vital; prevention would be even better, Williams said.
Now, the state has issued draft regulations geared toward prevention by ending commerce in invasive species, something that has been common in the horticulture, nursery, aquaculture and pet industries.
The regulations, called for in legislation signed by the governor last year, would make it illegal to sell, import, purchase, transport and introduce more than 100 species of animals, birds, bugs, plants and other organisms on a prohibited list. Another 30 species would go on a regulated list, which would make it illegal to introduce them into the wild.
The Department of Environmental Conservation is accepting public comment on the regulations until Dec. 23 and is conducting a public hearing at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 11, at the state fairgrounds in Syracuse.
The regulations are needed, said Bernd Blossey, an associate professor in the department of natural resources at Cornell University. Horticulture has been the biggest source of invasive species and many plants still are for sale, he said. Right now ornamental grasses are a big problem, he said.
“You always wonder whether voluntary restrictions that you ask people to do will actually do it,” he said. “Let’s compare it to seatbelts. You tell them it’s good for your life; you don’t die if you wear a seatbelt. That didn’t go very far. … Asking people not to sell or plant invasive species doesn’t go very far.”
Page 2 of 2 - Some of the threatening species are scary. Northern snakeheads have long, pointed teeth better suited to asnake than a fish. Feral swine — many of them descended from the soon-to-be-prohibited Eurasian boar — are capable of bringing down fawns.
Others seem more benign. Mute swans and European hares are among the prohibited species. And the regulated list includes Norway maples, Muscovy ducks and koi. But all are capable of doing damage and knocking the ecosystem out of whack.
Invasive species play a role in the peril of almost half of all endangered or threatened species, Williams said. And they exact an economic toll estimated to fall between $120 billion and $138 billion a year, Williams said.
The regulations help to spread awareness, but they clearly won’t stop all the threats, Blossey said.
“For a lot of them listed here, the horse is out of the barn,” he said. “Do we have a chance with emerald ash borer? Not really. Asian longhorned beetles? Probably. Asian earthworms? Maybe.”
But the regulations don’t cover species unless they’ve already had a big environmental impact, something Blossey sees as their big weakness. He hopes, he said, that the state will stay on top of new problem species.
“As the climate changes, as new species are being introduced, you should update the list,” he said.