Sunday, August 21, 2022

It’s debatable: Keeping out the round goby

round goby

Editor’s note: This first appeared in Adirondack Explorer’s March/April 2022 issue, in its ongoing “It’s Debatable” column. Click here to subscribe. The topic: The invasive round goby fish.

Q: How can we block invasives from Champlain Canal?

Closing a portion of the canal system would obstruct traffic

By Bob Radliff, executive director of the Erie Canalway Heritage Fund, of the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor in Waterford

The New York State Canal Corp. and Department of Environmental Conservation recently released a multi-faceted plan for managing the invasive round goby to help prevent its spread to Lake Champlain. The state’s strategy is a prudent approach to managing a complex international waterway with multiple users and stakeholders.

The campaign by several conservation organizations to close “just one lock” on the Champlain or “one guard gate” on the Erie Canal sounds simple enough. But such a closure would have significant negative impacts while not fully remedying the aquatic invasives problem.

First, closing locks or guard gates would severely impede, if not eliminate, recreational and commercial boating traffic. These measures would erase decades of investments made by waterfront communities. And they would threaten to substantially alter the nation’s oldest continuously operating canal about to celebrate its bicentennial.

Closing a lock or a guard gate would not eliminate the possibility of invasives reaching waterbodies. People spread invasives through the improper use of live bait. It spreads when watercraft are moved by trailer from one body of water to another. It spreads by ballast water from transatlantic ships using the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway connected to Lake Champlain via the Richelieu River and Chambly Canal at the northern end.

New York’s plan is appropriate and reasonable. It combines ongoing sampling and data collection with proactive actions including scheduled lock and double draining at key locks. Equally valuable, it includes community outreach and education, which are vital to engaging waterway users who may unintentionally spread invasive species.

The state canal system adds to the vitality and economies of cities, towns and villages along its 500-mile length. Boaters using the system contribute to communities along the Atlantic seaboard from Maine to Florida to the Great Lakes.

The canal system continues to play a critical role in New York’s transportation network. Keeping this low carbon means to move high value specialty and bulk cargoes that may be too large or costly to move by land is smart long-term for New York’s environment and economy.

The State of New York, local communities and businesses have been reimagining New York’s canals for more than 20 years—and making great strides. We share valid concerns regarding the spread of invasive species. But we need to implement win-win solutions that carefully consider the environmental, economic and community impacts of both threats and proposed mitigation measures. 

Close a lock to block the invasive round goby from Champlain

By Stu Gruskin, chief conservation and external affairs officer, The Nature Conservancy in New York

The Canal Corp. chose not to implement an interim, temporary lock closure, despite it being a proven way to mitigate the risk of the destructive invasive round goby from entering Lake Champlain. Instead, it opened the Champlain Canal without the promised rapid response plan and is rolling the dice with an untested lock draining process.

While it is heartening that the Canal Corp. is taking responsibility for addressing the spread of aquatic invasive species via the canals, by resisting even a short-term temporary lock closure it is creating an unnecessary risk for the communities in New York and Vermont who depend on Lake Champlain. An interim lock closure to protect the world-class fishery—accompanied by a boat lift if needed—is the most prudent and safest immediate step to avoid the irreparable economic and ecological harm that would result if round goby fish entered the lake.

Temporary lock closures happen for a variety of reasons, but apparently not to address the spread of invasive species. Lurking here is an important public policy question —how much risk is acceptable, and how much harm must occur, before the state implements the ‘hydrologic separation’ options recently recommended by its expert consultants to prevent the enormous harm caused by invasive species? Historically, the answer is that the risk of invasive species spreading has not resulted in effective action. Canal communities have paid the price as species such as the zebra mussel have spread from the Great Lakes to the Mohawk River, to the Hudson River, and then Lake Champlain via the canal system. These waterways are not naturally connected, and the canal serves as an artificial ‘superhighway’ for invasive species. Round goby is only the latest species to make that journey—and scientists tell us that the very destructive Asian carp is waiting on deck.

New York’s historic canal system can be an asset to the state without enabling the movement of invasive species. Navigation and preventing the spread of invasive species co-exist in many places around the world. If the unwavering resistance to even a temporary closure of a single lock persists in New York, however, the communities in the Mohawk, Hudson, and Lake Champlain regions will suffer the consequences. A temporary lock closure is a thoughtful right step to mitigate the risk of round goby from harming Lake Champlain and the communities that depend on the lake.

Photo at top: Round goby, provided by DEC

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at

5 Responses

  1. Gene Porter says:

    It is too bad that this discussion needlessly continues in a largely data-free environment.

    The round goby, took about a a decade to migrate through the Erie Canal corridor to reach Troy about a year ago. Since then the USGS has reportedly conducted an aggressive sampling program to ascertain the degree to which the goby is migrating up the Hudson River toward the entrance to the Champlain Canal/. That sampling includes both the fish themselves and testing of the water for trace DNA that would indicate the goby’s recent presence.

    And yet the Adirondack Almanack article reports no results of this sampling. The alarmist Nature Conservancy article reads as though the enemy is now at the gates. The much more balanced Heritage Canalway Fund article reminds us that live bait supplies are a known source of contamination but reports nothing about any program to sample the bait supply chain.

    Hopefully someone with access to the sampling data will illuminate the real status of this threat buy commenting herein.

  2. Don Massonne says:

    I’d like to understand what is meant by “a temporary lock closure”. Upon what condition will the closed lock ever be reopened?

  3. Scott MacMillin says:

    Has there been consideration of constructing an electric barrier as exists in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal? This barrier has been operating since 2002 to prevent Asian Carp present in the Mississippi basin from entering the Great Lakes.

  4. Wally Elton says:

    Thoughtful responses. I, too, do not understand “temporary lock closure.” When would it occur? For how long? Are there data to answer those questions?

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