Summer 2017
Ojibway Lake, Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota; PHOTOGRAPHY BY JIM BRANDENBURG

Guardians of the waterways

The U is training volunteers to identify and prevent the spread of invasive species

Seven years ago, Anthony Vavoulis bought a place on a lake in Washington County, a short drive from his home in St. Paul. An avid kayaker, Vavoulis, ’74 B.E.D., ’75 B.Arch., often found himself drawn to the edges of the water, where wetlands dominated. As Vavoulis’ boat slipped silently through the reeds and rushes, unfamiliar plants and animals surfaced as if from nowhere—it was a tiny magical kingdom hidden in plain sight. “Often, these plants looked the same, but up close they were actually quite different,” Vavoulis says.

His adventures in this watery world led him to a greater appreciation of Minnesota’s diverse ecosystem. As a U of M student, he had taken an elective course that focused on the state’s native plants—“It was one of my favorite classes!”—and his up-close interaction with plants, animals, and the landscape around his lake home reignited his interest. 

When he heard about a volunteer program that involved learning about native and nonnative aquatic species, Vavoulis jumped at the chance to participate.

Knowledge and tools

The program, Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) Detectors, was recently launched by the University of Minnesota Extension and the Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center (MAISRC), in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). 

Aimed at reducing the spread of nonnative plants and animals in Minnesota’s lakes, rivers, and wetlands, it gives “citizen scientists” the knowledge and tools to identify native species and document invaders such as zebra mussels, Eurasian watermilfoil, and Asian carp, which can quickly alter an aquatic ecosystem. The program’s goal is to assist the DNR in monitoring, tracking, and preventing the spread of aquatic invasive species.

“It’s pretty clear that our best hope for stopping the spread of any nonnative species is responding early,” says MAISRC director Nick Phelps, ’12 Ph.D. “If we can find it fast, there’s a better chance we can do something about it.”

“Our best hope for stopping the spread of any nonnative species is responding early.”
Nick Phelps, MAISRC director

Finding invaders quickly, however, requires time and labor. The Minnesota DNR, charged with protecting the state’s environment from the harm that nonnative species can inflict, has just 10 staff people and limited resources to address aquatic invasive species across the entire state. The DNR conducts periodic checks on a number of waterways and investigates reports of infestations. But many reports filed by members of the public turn out to be false leads, and responding to them—and devising plans when nonnative species are detected—is time-consuming.

Such challenges ultimately led Phelps and others in the environmental research community to hatch an idea: What if ordinary citizens could be trained to do field studies, collect samples, and perform quality-control checks, assisting the DNR in its efforts?

Private support and public success

Pinned on the wall above the desk in Phelps’s office on the St. Paul campus is a magazine cover bearing a picture of a dock stretching out into a Minnesota lake. “That’s my view every weekend,” says Phelps, who grew up near Brainerd and now owns a lake home in the area. “It’s beautiful. And I want it to stay that way.”

Phelps joined the U’s College of Veterinary Medicine in 2007. His academic interests, however, include aquaculture systems and production, aquatic ecosystem health, and emerging infectious diseases of farmed and wild fish. When MAISRC was established in 2012 with funding from the Minnesota Legislature, Phelps signed on. In July, he was appointed the center’s director. “I care about Minnesota lakes,” he says. “My job is a personal passion.”

MAISRC’s mission is to reduce the impact of aquatic invasive species in the state. To that end, the center, which is now backed by public funds and private gifts, brings together faculty and graduate students in a variety of fields, including fisheries, conservation biology, entomology, climatology, population medicine, and even biotechnology. 

This interdisciplinary collaboration has resulted in unique solutions to problems related to nonnative species. Phelps says: “In just five years, we’ve had a couple of quick wins that have provided immediate value.”

Minnesota’s development of programming to predict where starry stonewort is likely to spread is one example. In recent years, the invader has been reported in Stearns, Cass, Itasca, and Beltrami counties.  This summer, MAISRC has been working with the DNR to screen more bodies of water in Minnesota and parts of Wisconsin for the invader. 

“We’ve been able to be very proactive and move more quickly than other states,” Phelps says.

The University of Minnesota Extension and Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center have trained more than 120 volunteers to identify invasive species.
Courtesy of MAISRC

A citizens brigade

Many Minnesotans share Phelps’s love of Minnesota’s 11,842 lakes. As the number of invasive species entering those lakes has risen, so has public awareness about the harm they cause.

“Awareness of AIS in Minnesota is relatively high,” says Heidi Wolf, who supervises the DNR’s invasive species unit.

Watercraft owners and members of lake associations are among those who regularly report invasive species sightings, but the photos they submit are often blurry and locations are hard to pinpoint. Identifying nonnative species, especially plants, can be challenging for untrained citizens, Wolf says.

Last October, MAISRC began training volunteers to respond to possible AIS sightings by submitting reports and collecting samples that can be used by DNR experts to confirm the presence and pinpoint the location of invaders. 

The success of that pilot program led to a full rollout this past spring. More than 120 participants, who heard about the AIS Detectors program through their lake associations or TV or radio advertisements, signed up to complete eight hours of online training, followed by an eight-hour day in the classroom. Graduates agree to provide 25 hours of service annually.

Although the program is still in its infancy, Daniel Larkin, a U of M assistant professor who helps run it, says its true value will be evident when the volunteers allow staff to better respond to AIS. He says the initial volunteers have already helped shape the curriculum by asking good questions. 

“We’re really learning a lot from our participants,” Larkin says. “They bring a lot of life experience to the training.”

Wolf says the program is expected to benefit the DNR and Minnesota long-term. “Our relationship with MAISRC has been really positive and productive,” she says. “We’re happy to be partnering.”

Phelps and Larkin see enlisting volunteers as an opportunity to more closely monitor the state’s beloved waterways without further taxing its limited conservation budget. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to check hundreds of lakes that have not been inspected before,” Phelps says. “The detectors will add to our ability to manage AIS.”

And for program participants like Vavoulis, the chance to further preserve Minnesota’s legendary lakes is the icing on the cake. “It’s about problem-solving,” he says. “But this also gets me outdoors. It gives me a reason to explore.”

Joel Hoekstra is a Minneapolis freelance writer.


Invasive species endanger Minnesota’s lakes and rivers in a number of ways. Some crowd out native vegetation. Others feed on tiny food particles, reducing the supply available to native fish and other aquatic organisms. MAISRC’s research is focused on the detection, control, and management of these intruders. Click on the images below to learn about a few they’re battling.