Spiny water fleas collected from Lake George. (Lake Champlain Research Institute)
LAKE CHAMPLAIN, Vt., July 7 (UPI) -- Environmental officials in Vermont and New York say its likely only a matter of time before the invasive spiny water flea finds its way into Lake Champlain.
The strange sponge-like water insect -- which looks like a tiny jellyfish sprinkled with black pepper -- has already been found in Lake George. It was found in 2012, but scientists say it likely had been hanging around the lake for some time prior to its discovery.
The spiny water flea, which first came from Europe and Asia via cargo ships, was first detected in the Great Lakes in the 1980s. It's since spread outward. The little flea is problematic because it can disrupt the food chain.
It feeds on the same zooplankton vital to the small fish at the bottom of the food chain, the bait and juvenile fish that sustain larger species.
"It seems probable at this point with them being in Lake George and also in the canal system," said Fred Dunlap, Lake Champlain Coordinator for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, speaking to the chances of the flea invading Lake Champlain. "The odds are stacked against us at the moment, but our monitoring has not found them yet, so we can remain somewhat optimistic."
The flea isn't just competition for food, but it can also be food. But scientists say fish replacing zooplankton with fleas in their diet will be making an unfortunate mistake.
"Fish will feed on these in the absence of anything else, or in the absence of enough other things, and they'll end up feeling full, full stomachs, but they'll have very little nutritional value in there," Dunlap explained. "And that's what affects their growth rate that way."
While conservationists are worried about the proliferating insect, officials say the flea's been in Vermont's Lake George for several years now and no real biological consequences have been observed.
If they are found in Champlain, officials say, they'll likely first be discovered by fishermen. The glob-like insects often grab hold of fishing lines and don't let go.
"They might be detected sooner by anglers who are trolling long fishing lines out behind them, as the spiny water flea quite often attaches to them," Dunlap said. "So we may hear from fisherman that they're in the lake before we're able to find them in our sampling program."