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Sea lamprey public enemy No. 1 among invasive species

By Galen Eagle, Peterborough Examiner


Of all the invasive species threatening the Great Lakes, public enemy number one remains the sea lamprey.

No other species has caused more damage to the lakes and the lakes’ tributaries, explained Terry Quinney, the provincial manager of fish and wildlife services for the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH).

In the past 50 years, the U.S. and Canada have shelled out a combined $1 billion trying to combat and control the sea lamprey.

But scientists, conservationists and policy makes have a new weapon and it’s being developed in Peterborough. Genome mapping and DNA technologies based out of Trent University may represent the best tools in combating such species today and into the future, Quinney said.

By mapping the sea lamprey’s genome, scientists can determine how best to eradicate it.

“We are learning that sea lampreys have this really keen sense of chemical smell. Through things such as genetic research we can learn about chemical attractants that can bring sea lampreys into traps. Then they can be exposed of,” Quinney said. “That’s one concrete example of transferring the pure research, based on genetics, into the water to control this very harmful aquatic invader.”

The future of DNA technologies and what role they will play in future environmental conservation was the subject of Tuesday night’s wildlife symposium at the OFAH’s Mario Cortellucci Hunting and Fishing Heritage Centre.

Entitled DNA: the Future of Wildlife and Fish Conservation in the 21st Century, the event attracted about 70 visitors and featured cutting-edge research from Trent University, the OFAH, Fleming College and the Ministry of Natural Resources.

“It’s really to show where the new DNA technologies are going in terms of providing information for conservation and management systems,” said Trent biology Prof. Bradley White, supervisor of the university’s Wildlife DNA Forensic Laboratory.

“We’re seen as a significant leader in this field. One of the reasons of this meeting is to keep us at the forefront of that research.”

“Our experience with the sea lamprey tells us that once an invasive species arrives, it can be nearly impossible to remove it from an aquatic ecosystem,” said Chris Wilson, a MNR research scientist who runs the province’s Aquatic Biodiversity and Conservation research unit, which includes Trent’s Fisheries Genetics lab.

Wilson explained to Tuesday’s audience how his genetic research could act as a “smoke signal” or early warning system to predict the arrival of invasive species and allow policymakers to act pre-emptively.

Much like popular CSI television shows highlight, humans have the tendency to leave traces of DNA in their environment as they go about their daily lives.

So too do fish, explained Wilson.

“They are literally leaving this plume of DNA whether its shed cells or bits of tissue or their latest meal, they are leaving a trail through the water,” Wilson said.

DNA testing from water samples allowed scientists to discover the presence of invasive bighead and silver carp in Lake Eerie last summer without netting a single fish.

“It’s a molecular smoke alarm,” Wilson said. “There is (now) a huge planning exercise going on including response actions. Usually with an invasive species, by the time you see them, they are well established and there are really limited options on what you can do.”

Using such research, agencies such as the OFAH can better respond to environmental threats, protect species at risk and ensure the sustainable use of the province’s natural resources for generations to come, Quinney said.

“It’s the results of those important research studies that inform management decisions … but also inform us about how to keep ecosystems healthy,” he said. “The science helps inform us how we can go about using those resources sustainably forever.”

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