Elodea: by KJ Hellis How the invasive species called elodea could change the cultural landscape in Alaska.
Up to my chest in frigid bog water, I cling tightly to my waders hoping not to flood them and I trudge through thick clay that covers the bottom of the ponds. “Where is the elodea?” I ask one of the members of the Alaskan Forest Service as I look down into the murky water. “Everywhere,” she says. Elodea is a seemingly unassuming plant. It is small and narrow with flat, leafy segments that snake down to the roots. The aquatic plant floats peacefully in ponds, lakes, and bogs but the Forest Service is in the process of spraying the plants with a deadly chemical in an attempt to wipe out the population. Elodea is not a native plant and was first discovered in Alaska in 1882 in Eyak Lake, Cordova. Since then it has been documented in several other locations including Fairbanks, Anchorage, and even farther away in European countries that share a similar climate. The theory most scientists subscribe to is that elodea came to Alaska in an aquarium. A popular plant to stock fish tanks with, elodea could have easily been dumped into the water system. It is an incredibly durable plant and is able to survive even through ice. As long as the plant has a viable fragment and doesn’t completely dry up, it can survive up to 24 hours outside of the water and begin to grow a new colony. Because it is such a tough plant, it can be distributed on the soles of shoes, the bottoms of float planes, and on fishing equipment. In Alaska, elodea is not as harmless as it may appear and has serious implications on their thriving salmon fishing industry. Elodea has become a monoculture type of invasive species and has the ability to change the complexity of aquatic ecosystems which are so important to the economy and culture in Alaska. It can overcrowd or outcompete native vegetation which has the possibly to change the distribution and richness of the native plant species. These minute changes could have cascading effects in the food web, water quality, and fisheries. On the flip side, the herbicide used to kill elodea, fluridone, has been called into question. 2016 will be the first year the treatment has been implemented in Cordova and if the control experiments go well the Forest Service is looking to treat 75 acres of wetlands. Fluridone is not known to be harmful to fish directly, but experts worry that changes in the aquatic plant density may change oxygen levels and create and anoxic environment where fish cannot survive. A few species of native plats including milfoils, coontail, duckweeds, and lilies, are expected to die after application but the other side effects won’t be fully understood for two years after careful observation. My experience with the Forest Service came from my trip to Cordova with the Science and Memory Team where I had the privilege to learn about complex environmental issues like the elodea problem. Alaska is one of the last few places left in the United States that is still unbelievably wild. The skyline alone will take your breath away and the sense of community that surrounds the fishing industry is an undeniably essential part of culture there. Elodea is a relatively unknown problem that has the power to devastate the state if it isn’t properly handled. Alaska has extremely resilient systems and great genetic diversities but with other environmental pressures like climate change and overfishing, any small step to protect the land is a monumental feat.