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July 2, 2013

Biologist saves lake from invasive plant

By Joe Mahoney Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — COOPERSTOWN — Eric Coe is a young man who stands between lakes and invasive species.

The 24-year-old Fly Creek resident is working this summer trying to make sure that non-native plant life does not enter Canadarago Lake via a public boat launch three miles south of Richfield Springs.

One month after staring the job, his work is already making a difference. On Monday, Coe found himself being credited with saving Canadarago Lake from an infestation of water chestnuts. The nettlesome invasive species has gained a toehold in Goodyear Lake — but has not been found in Canadarago.

On Sunday morning, he was standing sentry at the boat launch when a man pulled in hauling a trailer with a fishing boat on top, he recalled.

“I got down on my hands and knees and made a tactile inspection of the boat and trailer,” said Coe, whose work is being funded by grants from the Canadarago Lake Improvement Association and the Student Research Foundation at the State University College of Oneonta.

That’s when the hawk-eyed lake steward found it — a single water chestnut attached to the trailer.

Coe, who graduated in May from the State University College at Oneonta with a degree in environmental biology, said he then explained the significance of the find to the boat’s owner.

The man who had been about to roll his trailer into the lake while an invasive plant was clinging to it then explained that he had heard about water chestnuts but was not aware of the specific harm they can cause to waterways, Coe recalled.

“He didn’t understand the ecological risks associated with the plant,” Coe said.

Water chestnuts, a highly competitive plant capable of rapid growth and spread, form dense impenetrable mats at the water surface, killing out other vegetation and making sections of lakes where they take over useless for boaters and swimmers.

“They also lower property values” for those with camps along lakes that have them, Coe noted.

Paul Lord, an aquatic biology professor at SUCO, said had that single water chestnut gotten past Coe it could have caused an infestation that would have taken eight years to eradicate.

“This was a great save,” said Lord. “Most folks, unfortunately, are about as unknowing about the potential of an infestation as was this gentleman on whose trailer the water chestnut was found. That’s how these things get spread. It’s not out of maliciousness.”

Coe and Lord both said that boaters should use power washers on their crafts after removing them from waterways with invasive species. Lord said he is hoping that the state Department of Environmental Conservation institute fines for those who introduce a new invasive species into a waterway, a consequence that already exists in some other states. The boats can also be cleansed with a solution of bleach and water.

Ryan Fagan, one of the trustees of the Canadarago Lake Improvement Association, praised Coe for his dedication.

“Eric’s knowledge and enthusiasm has blown us away from Day One,” Fagan said. “His approach is to educate every boater about the immense dangers of transporting non-native plants, and the very simple measures that can be taken to prevent potentially tragic outbreaks from happening.”

He said Coe often puts in eight-hour shifts “in the baking sun or pouring rain.”

Coe, who currently works only weekends at the launch, said he worries that invasive species may be making their way into the lake on days he is not working. Often putting in 8 hour shifts in the baking sun or pouring rain, every single person who uses Canadarago Lake owes Eric a debt of gratitude for his vigilance, and especially for preventing this potential disaster.

“I’m trying to recruit as many volunteers as I can in order to expand the program,” said Coe, a 2007 graduate of Cooperstown High School.

Meanwhile, the Goodyear Lake Assocation, which has been coping with its own stubborn problem of water chestnuts, is trying to enlist Coe to help out there.

Coe said the boater who unwittingly brought the water chestnut to the Canadarago launch had last used his boat in the Mohawk River, near the Herkimer area, where water chestnuts have been a problem.

Whether the fisherman caught anything in Canadarago Sunday is unknown. But thanks to the counseling provided by Coe, he left the lake with something he didn’t have when he arrived: A basic understanding of how to prevent invasive species from being spread from one waterway to another.