(Host) Vermont and New Hampshire have launched an ad campaign aimed at raising public awareness about a new invasive algae.
The organism is called "didymo". Scientists say the algae could spread out of control, smother stream habitat, and damage fish populations.
VPR’s John Dillon reports:
(Dillon) Officials from both states met on the White River in Hartford to launch the public information campaign. Vermont Natural Resources Secretary George Crombie kicked off the event with a thank-you, and an apology of sorts.
(Crombie) "And thanks for joining all of us today as we talk about the latest developments in Vermont and New Hampshire’s joint effort in preventing the spread of rock snot. I hate to use that word, but that’s what it is."
(Dillon) Didymo earned that descriptive term because it forms thick, cotton-like mats on rocks on the river bottom. Extreme algae blooms can choke off habitat for insects and fish.
The organism is in the diatom group of algae and is believed to be native to northern Europe and Asia. But in June, it was first spotted in the northeast United States on the upper Connecticut River. Didymo has since been seen in two locations – six miles apart – on the White River.
The public awareness effort is aimed at limiting its spread, since there’s no known way of getting rid of it.
Thomas Burack, the commissioner of New Hampshire’s Department of Environmental Services, said the stakes are huge.
(Burack) "When you come right down to it, this really is a battle to save the rivers and streams that are so vitally important to the ecological, to the aesthetic, to the recreational, and to the economic character of our two beautiful states."
(Dillon) The ad campaign urges anyone who uses rivers and streams to carefully check and clean their clothing and equipment.
For anglers, that means soaking fishing waders in hot water with detergent for at least a half hour. And waders with felt soles should be avoided, because felt retains moisture and can keep the algae alive.
Angela Shambaugh is an aquatic biologist with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. She explained that didymo is one tough diatom.
(Shambaugh) "Didymo is capable of surviving outside of water. It can kind of go into a starvation mode. It needs only a low level of moisture to survive. And a single cell when carried into a new environment can take off and start a whole new population. It’s not easy to kill this; it’s just not easy."
(Sounds of a babbling river)"
(Dillon) About 25 miles upstream on the White River near Stockbridge, environmentalist Mary Russ points out where didymo is spreading on the rocks. It’s not in full bloom; it looks like brown, spongy clumps.
(Russ) "But because it’s here and the organism is microscopic, the rest of the river has probably been exposed. So it’s just a matter of time before it finds those ideal conditions and attaches to a rock and starts to grow."
(Dillon) Russ is executive director of the White River Partnership, which works to protect the river. She spots the shell of a stone fly – a common aquatic insect – left on a rock. Stone flies are a favorite food for trout, and are a sign of healthy water.
(Russ) "This is sort of the issue with didymo is that stone fly and caddis fly and may fly and the range of macro invertebrate that our trout and salmon populations feed on live on these rocks. And the didymo will smother that rock which effectively boots the insect. The real problem with didymo in terms of fish is essentially a food chain issue. If the bugs they eat die, they don’t have a food source, and it trickles down the ecosystem."
(Dillon) Volunteers have posted signs along the White River that tell people how to disinfect their gear. The new radio ad campaign will air for two months, and will cost the state about $12-thousand dollars. The money is more than worth it, officials say, if it helps contain the spread of didymo.
For VPR News, I’m John Dillon.