Minnesota is known for its 10,000 lakes, each with its own unique ecosystem that provides habitats for various plants and animals. However, these bodies of water are also prone to hitchhiker weeds, which can cause problems for the environment and recreational activities. In this blog post, we will discuss what hitchhiker weeds are, their impact on lakes and how to prevent them from spreading.
What are Hitchhiker Weeds?
Hitchhiker weeds, also known as invasive aquatic plants, are non-native plants that grow rapidly and aggressively in lakes and other bodies of water. They hitch their way into new lakes by attaching themselves to boats, trailers or other watercraft – hence the name! These plants spread quickly and can outcompete native species, which disrupts the balance of the ecosystem. Some of the most common hitchhiker weeds we see in Minnesota are Eurasian watermilfoil, curly-leaf pondweed, and zebra mussels.
Eurasian watermilfoil is a submerged aquatic plant that can grow up to 10 feet long. It has long, feathery leaves that grow in whorls around the stem. Eurasian watermilfoil can quickly form dense mats on the surface of the water, which can impede recreational activities such as swimming, boating, and fishing. This invasive weed can become extremely difficult to control once it becomes established in a lake. Chemical treatments may be effective, however, they do come with harmful consequences. The best method for removal is to pull the plant up by the root.
Curly-leaf pondweed is another invasive aquatic plant that is common in Minnesota lakes. It is a submerged aquatic plant that grows in shallow waters. Curly-leaf pondweed has narrow, serrated leaves that curl upward, giving it its name. Like Eurasian watermilfoil, curly-leaf pondweed can form dense mats on the surface of the water, which can make recreational activities difficult. The best time to get control over this particular invasive species is during the cold months when the plant is dormant. The quicker you can get this plant under control, the better!
Zebra mussels are not plants, but they are still considered hitchhiker weeds. Zebra mussels are small, freshwater mussels that are native to Eastern Europe and Western Asia. They were first discovered in Minnesota in 1989, and unfortunately, have since spread to many of our lakes and rivers throughout the state. Zebra mussels can attach themselves to boats, trailers, and other watercraft. This is how they can be transported to other bodies of water. Once in a new body of water, zebra mussels can quickly reproduce and cause significant damage to the ecosystem. Infested water bodies can become less attractive to tourists and recreationists, impacting local businesses and economies. Additionally, their sharp shells can create hazards for swimmers and other activities. You can learn more about zebra mussels and the negative impact they have on our environment here.
Impact of Hitchhiker Weeds on Lakes
Unfortunately, these invasive weeds can have a significant negative impact on our lakes and other bodies of water. They start to disrupt the balance of the lakes’ ecosystems by outcompeting native species for resources such as nutrients, sunlight and space. Some of the common native aquatic plants that can be affected by the weeds include coontail, flat stem pondweed and eelgrass. The hitchhiker weeds start to become a problem when they form dense mats on the surface of the water. By forming these dense mats, they start to block sunlight from reaching native aquatic plants which then can cause them to die off.
The loss of native aquatic plants can have a ripple effect throughout the ecosystem. The native plants play a crucial role in providing food and shelter for a variety of our aquatic animals like fish and amphibians. When these beneficial plants die off, the populations of these animals begin to decline significantly. This decline eventually leads to a disruption in the food chain and the overall balance of the ecosystem. Unfortunately, all of this can impact the recreational activities that rely on healthy fish populations in our lakes, such as fishing, ultimately causing a negative impact on the local economy.
Additionally, the loss of these native aquatic plants also contributes to an increase in algal blooms. Unfortunately, this increase can be detrimental to both humans and animals. Algal blooms are an overgrowth of algae which is caused by excessive nutrient levels in the water. If native plants are not present in the water, the nutrients are free to accumulate which leads to a rise in algal blooms. These blooms can cause skin rashes, respiratory issues and even death in extreme cases.
Furthermore, hitchhiker plants can also affect our recreational activities on the lake. When these dense mats of plants cover the surface of the water, it makes it difficult to swim, boat and fish. In addition, and even more scary is the fact that hitchhiker weeds can damage boats and other watercraft. Zebra mussels, in particular, are notorious for damaging infrastructure such as water intake pipes, docks, and boat motors. They can attach themselves to these structures, causing blockages and corrosion that can be costly to repair.
Preventing the Spread of Hitchhiker Weeds
Preventing the spread of these invasive weeds is an essential step in protecting the ecosystem of Minnesota’s lakes and other bodies of water. It is something we need to take seriously in order to preserve our most treasured assets. Here are some ways you can help prevent the spread of hitchhiker weeds:
1. Clean Your Boat
Before leaving a lake, always remember to clean your boat or watercraft and all of your equipment. Remove any visible weeds and thoroughly rinse your boat and equipment with high-pressure, hot water. This will help remove any small, hidden weeds that may be attached to your boat.
2. Drain All Water
Make sure to drain all of the water from your boat and equipment, including live wells, bait buckets, and bilges. This will help prevent the spread of hitchhiker weeds and other invasive species.
3. Dry Out Your Equipment
After cleaning and draining your boat and equipment, you want to let everything dry completely before using it again. Hitchhiker weeds and other invasive species can survive for several days in moist environments, so it’s imperative to let everything dry out thoroughly.
4. Introduce Native Plants
When planting vegetation in and around lakes and other bodies of water, use native plants whenever possible. Native plants are better adapted to the local environment and are less likely to become invasive. Some great options include butterfly weed, black-eyed susan or fox sedge. Check out this great resource for more information about native plantings.
5. Report Sightings
If you see any weeds or other invasive species, report them to the appropriate authorities right away. The MN DNR is a great resource for all things invasive species. This can help prevent the spread of these species and protect the ecosystem of the lake or body of water.
6. Be Cautious When Moving Equipment
When moving your boat or other watercraft from one body of water to another, be cautious and check for these weeds or other invasive species. Like mentioned earlier, make sure to clean and drain your equipment before entering a new body of water. Remember, you can never be too thorough!
How to Properly Dispose of Aquatic Invasive Plants
After cleaning off your boat and all of your equipment you may be wondering what to do with the weeds you may have found. Disposing of the invasive weeds is just as important in preventing their spread to other lakes. We have listed some of the most common ways to get rid of the weeds properly.
On-site disposal: If possible, dispose of the invasive plants on-site. Allow them to dry out and decay before removing them. This will help prevent the spread of seeds and fragments.
Composting: Composting can be a good option for some invasive plant species. However, it is important to compost them properly to ensure that they do not regrow or spread. Make sure that the compost pile reaches a temperature of at least 140°F for several days to kill any seeds or plant fragments.
Landfill: If on-site disposal or composting is not possible, landfilling may be an option. Check with your local landfill to see if they accept invasive plant species, and make sure to follow their guidelines for disposal.
Incineration: Incineration is a highly effective method of disposing of invasive plants, but it may not be practical for most individuals.
It is important to note that not all aquatic plants are invasive, and some may be protected or endangered. Before disposing of any aquatic plants, make sure to identify them correctly. Also, check with your local authorities to ensure that you are following the proper disposal guidelines.
Invasive aquatic plants, or hitchhiker weeds, can have a significant impact on the ecosystem of Minnesota’s lakes and other bodies of water. They can disrupt the balance of the ecosystem, damage boats and other watercraft, and make recreational activities difficult. Preventing the spread of these pesky weeds is essential to protecting the environment and preserving the recreational opportunities that Minnesota’s lakes and other bodies of water offer.
By taking simple steps like cleaning and draining your boat and equipment, using native plants, and reporting sightings of these weeds, you can help prevent the spread of invasive species and protect the ecosystem of Minnesota’s lakes and other bodies of water. Let’s all do our part to keep our lakes and waterways healthy and thriving for generations to come.
The experienced team at Waterfront Restoration is ready to partner with you to protect Minnesota waters through expertise, education, prevention, inspection and management of aquatic invasive species.