Science below the surface
Nick Phelps, Extension aquaculture specialist, is one of several Extension faculty members engaging citizens in preventing the spread of harmful microbes and other aquatic invasive species that can hurt Minnesota's industries and way of life.
Extension engages businesses, communities in protecting Minnesota waters
All spring, Greg Oswald of Oswald Fisheries has been busy raising minnows in special protective ponds. "Our health-certified minnows are great for catching walleyes and muskies," says Oswald, whose business is headquartered in Ellendale. He also has contracts to provide them as feed for state-fed game fish.
But fish can get sick. When they do, they pose a threat to other fish that are crucial to our enjoyment of Minnesota's 11,000 lakes and rivers—and to Minnesota's $4.8 billion sport fishing industry.
"Minnesota's multi-million dollar baitfish industry, with both farmed and wild-harvested fish, is the second largest in the nation," says Nick Phelps, an Extension aquaculture specialist and faculty member with the U of M College of Veterinary Medicine, who conducts research and education to help protect the state's waters.
"The industry is important because all fish used for bait in Minnesota must be raised or harvested here," says Phelps. A 1960s ban on importing live baitfish was intended to protect the industry in Minnesota, but kept in place to prevent the spread of invasive species and disease.
Phelps reaches out to educate anglers about how to prevent the spread of diseases. He and his team at the University's Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory have developed a new lab test that detects viral hemorrhagic septicemia in two days versus the previous test that took 28 days. Early detection and assurances are keys to preventing spread and keeping businesses up and running.
"We need assurances that regulations don't unnecessarily put businesses on lockdown," says Oswald. "Nick and others at the University established a protocol system, allowing our tested and certified product to be transported and accepted."
While Phelps pursues viruses in the baitfish industry, the University is working to protect the state's waters against several other organisms. Sue Galatowitsch, a restoration ecologist who leads the University's new Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center, recently convened more than 200 lakeshore association representatives and community leaders to the St. Paul campus to highlight ongoing research and how they may be involved in the future. "In addition to harmful microbes, we have fast-moving issues like zebra mussels, so we have to use an adaptive process that engages citizens," she says.
This opens the door to further collaboration with Extension specialists, like Phelps, and regional and local Extension educators. "We have a long way to go to discover how to manage aquatic invasives," says Galatowitsch. "Increased cooperation is going to be critical among the University, Extension, the DNR, fishing and recreation industries, and other partners."
Closing the research gap on invasive species
No reliably proven treatment options exist yet for many aquatic invasive species. The Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center at the University of Minnesota was formed in 2012 to develop new tools to measure, control and eradicate invasive plants, fish and invertebrates. Beginning in 2015-2016, Extension faculty within the Center will develop plans to:
- Engage citizens in scientific research trials on Minnesota lakes, ponds and rivers
- Train educators and volunteers on population monitoring and reporting before and after various treatments
- Gather and analyze data, then share discoveries with citizens