When Are We Going to Get Serious About Invasive Species- Phragmites?

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The Phragmites invasion was identified as the number one concern facing the Long Point area at this summer’s Long Point Biosphere symposium on ecosystem stresses.

Phragmites growing along the Chesapeake Bay shoreline. image: chesapeakebay.net

Phragmites growing along the Chesapeake Bay shoreline. image: chesapeakebay.net

In the pond adjacent to my house, a few Phragmites plants appeared about 20 years ago. Those few stalks then turned into a patch covering 15 per cent of the pond. It took 20 years but I’ve now eliminated it – although it has cropped up elsewhere on our farm. I realize what I’ve seen for an increase is small in comparison to what has occurred in some areas, for example, Phragmites dominates the ditches along Highway 402.

More than 10 years ago, Dr. Scott Petrie and Long Point Waterfowl were one of the first to research the expansion of Phragmites in the Long Point area. At that time, the potential threat was just beginning to be realized. Its threat wasn’t widely known outside Long Point except amongst waterfowlers and naturalists.

The last session of the legislature debated Phragmites as a part of the Invasive Species Act. This bill has currently had its second reading.

My concern as a landowner is to have the tools to deal with Phragmites. The Invasive Species Act doesn’t provide this kind of help. Ideally, the Act should contain an education plan, funding and ways to prevent spread. The Act puts an emphasis on landowners to control invasive species, but doesn’t provide the wherewithal to make it happen.

This is not to say the Invasive Species Act is all bad legislation, it’s just big on stick and small on carrot.

Now in talking about tools, we realize the challenges of controlling Phragmites. It spreads through both seeds and rhizomes and is just about impossible to control without herbicide.

I recently attended a St. Williams meeting on Phragmites, hosted by the Ontario Phragmites Working Group and Long Point Ratepayers’ Association, that focused on methods of control. Control alternatives varied from manual extraction, to discing it under, to experimentation with herbicides, to prescribed burns. Herbicides are the best alternative for large areas, but the issue is approval needs to be granted for application over water.

When Phragmites colonizes an area, it spreads quickly and prevents the new growth of other plants. It’s also poor habitat for wildlife. It impacts humans as well through loss of recreational opportunities, negative tourism impacts, decline in property values and blocked sightlines.

Purple LoosestrifeWhen Purple Loosestrife was the hot invasive plant, I was Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Natural Resources. In conjunction with the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, hit squads went into areas where Loosestrife was rampant and manually removed it. It’s not that simple with Phragmites, and we have yet to see this kind of commitment from government.

During the St. Williams symposium, we learned the City of Thomas has tackled Phragmites with minimal expenditure. The goal is to have the city Phragmites-free by 2020. Lambton Shores has also been aggressive and the plant is now 99 per cent under control in the municipality.

When Purple Loosestrife was first identified as an issue, it was thought to be the worst invasive plant in the province’s history – Phragmites now has that dubious honour. It will take a concerted effort by government, communities and individuals to take it on. It’s time to get serious! For the Silo, MPP Toby Barrett

Toby Barrett

4 Comments to When Are We Going to Get Serious About Invasive Species- Phragmites?

  1. UPDATE ~ Is toxic wild parsnip our latest invader?
    This July I had an opportunity to take a break‎ from worrying about invasive phragmites and common buckthorn upon the discovery of what looks like a second-year stand of toxic wild parsnip on my farm.
    What was a small sun-lit sheep pasture‎ originally seeded by my grandfather had become overrun with a hundred or so tall yellow-green flowers – the first appearance in Norfolk of wild parsnip to my knowledge.

    Toxic wild parsnip is yet another invasive species, originating in Eurasia, ‎that has the nasty characteristic of causing painful blisters in the presence of sunlight. There have been some well-publicized cases in eastern Ontario. A Renfrew woman ended up with blisters from contact and now must avoid exposing her skin to sunlight for three years.

    The few plants found on my farm pale in comparison to the estimated 200 miles of roadway infested in the Ottawa area. Wild parsnip has also been confirmed at the Grand River in Haldimand County.
    Toxic Wild Parsnip Invasive Species S/W Ontario and beyond
    My battle with wild parsnip, and against phragmites and common buckthorn before that, highlights the shortcomings of the Invasive Species Act. While it’s good Ontario takes invasive species seriously enough to be the only province with its own invasive species legislation, one of my concerns is the legislation doesn’t give landowners the tools they need.

    Actions speak louder than words. The Ontario Phragmites Working Group is currently waiting for word on a request to have the province expedite an emergency approval for herbicides to kill phragmites over water. I ask why this isn’t being made a priority.

    Wild parsnip, common buckthorn and phragmites are a serious concern. The good news is, with a concerted effort, invasive plants can be eliminated or at the least controlled. Such is not the case with aquatic invasive species. As was seen with sea lamprey in the 1950s, the Great Lakes are just too vast to control an aquatic invader once it’s established. While lamprey can be kept in check, such is not the case if Asian carp were to ever establish in the Great Lakes.

    Are recent cases of grass carp being found in Lake Erie, including two in the Dunnville area, a precursor to a full-out invasion? Many people debate this topic in coffee shops and tackle shops across the riding. Grass carp found near Dunnville were both sterile, but fertile fish have been found in an Ohio Lake Erie tributary. Grass carp only eat vegetation, but the establishment of grass carp in Lake Erie would change the balance of the ecosystem forever. This is an ecosystem still adjusting from other invaders such as zebra mussels and round gobies.

    And then there’s the potential of other species of Asian carp invading the Great Lakes. Ramifications for Ontario’s sport and commercial fishing would be in the billions of dollars.

    There is hope, though. The best science is looking at ways to keep Asian carp in control and out of the Great Lakes in both the short and long term.

    Technology has made the world smaller in the 20th and 21st centuries. As people have transported goods from one continent to another, they have brought with them unwanted species. I look forward to the day technology will also be able to better control invasives. Haldimand-Norfolk MPP Toby Barrett.

  2. UPDATE August 8th 2016 from @thesiloteam Twitter

    The Silo @thesiloteam Aug 8
    Sources report ‪#‎InvasiveSpecies‬ found Port Dover, Ontario ‪#‎LakeErie‬ Bay- USGS Coastal and Ocean Science @USGS Muskie & Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) Canada Vessel spotted last 24hrs
    US Research Vessel Muskie at Port Dover / PACU invasive species ?
    UPDATE Aug 12th
    Could they be investigating the ‪#‎PACU‬ fish? via RT https://www.rt.com/viral/355642-human-toothed-fish-pacu/ River Monsters

  3. UPDATE The phragmites invasive chokes out everything

    Mention invasive species and it conjures up images of zebra mussels plastering the bottom of Lake Erie or lamprey clenched to the side of a trout.

    But invasive species aren’t limited to water, and aren’t necessarily unattractive. In fact, the greatest land-borne threat to the province’s ecosystems used to find its way into decorative arrangements in people’s homes. Phragmites is the tall reed with feathery tops that is proliferating the province’s wetlands, ditches and just about anywhere water accumulates.

    The war against phragmites is a tough one – the plant is resilient, spreading both from tubers underground and seeds above it. On my own farm, I saw a few stalks in my pond grow to cover 15 per cent of the area. It took me years to exterminate it, and it’s now making a comeback.

    As Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Natural Resources when purple loosestrife was invading marshes, I saw the threat taken seriously and solutions sought to tame the invasion. I have yet to see a concerted effort provincially to take on this latest threat.

    The Invasive Species Act may be the first provincial invasive species legislation, but it doesn’t do enough to deal with control. It mandates landowners to control invasive species, but doesn’t provide the tools to do the job.

    The key to preventing further expansion of phragmites is early detection and rapid response; however these have not been priorities for the Ontario government. Roadside ditches, including provincial highways, harbour and provide a conduit for the invader.

    Different groups have banded together to battle the scourge. St. Thomas aims to have the city free of phragmites in three years. Lambton Shores, north of Sarnia, has it 99 per cent under control.

    The Phragmites Working Group is bringing together experts to educate the public and foster control. The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative produces an information package on control for municipalities and individual landowners (http://glslcities.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Phragmites-Facsheet-4pager-EV-v21.pdf). It is also working with NASA to map the spread.

    One of the controls advocated by the working group is legalizing the same chemical measures in Ontario that are available in the United States. One of the challenges is glysophate – which is legal for use on land provincially but not over water. In the United States, glysophate can be used over water and, in addition, imazapyr is also approved for phragmites control. Often eliminating a stand involves mowing, compressing, prescribed burn, hand-pulling or flooding, along with herbicide application. A request by the working group for an emergency registration of appropriate chemicals to control phragmites has yet to result in approval.

    Years ago, I bought two goats for my kids – they ate just about anything, including my phragmites. Researchers in Maryland, found goats could reduce a phragmites stand by 80 per cent in a few weeks. In Europe, livestock grazing is used to knock back phragmites.

    MPP Monte McNaughton has been pushing to have phragmites added to the Noxious Weed Act. That would mean municipal officials could instruct landowners to deal with phragmites on their property. Again – no support from government.

    Phragmites needs to become a priority before it chokes out all other wetland plants and wildlife. All concerned need to band together to move it up on the government’s priority list. By MPP Toby Barrrett

  4. UPDATE-
    The recent discovery of two Asian carp in a pond in Toronto stands as a stark reminder of the potential cost and the need for education with respect to the ongoing problem of invasive species.

    Exactly how those two fish ended up in an enclosed pond might never be known, it’s a good bet they were put there by a human. This activity is not only illegal, but also puts the entire Great Lakes watershed, a multi-billion-dollar fishing industry and a boating-related tourism industry at risk. Studies have shown it would take as few as 20 Asian carp to form a reproducing population.

    Worldwide the cost of invasive species is estimated in the billions. In Canada, invasive plants alone cost the farming and forest industries an estimated $7.3 billion annually. The impact of zebra mussels in Ontario is between $75 and $91 million a year.

    Getting back to Asian carp, the largest threat of this species entering the Great Lakes remains through the Chicago Area Waterways System. In the wake of the report of the Great Lakes Mississippi River Interbasin Study, the US Army Corps of Engineers continues to block access through the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal at the Brandon Road lock.

    While clearing brush on my farm this summer, I came to realize the significance of another invader – the common buckthorn.

    Common buckthorn is native to Eurasia and was first brought to North America as an ornamental shrub in the 1800s. Its use wasn’t just in gardens, but also in farm fencerows and windbreaks. It soon spread into woodlots. It is spread both through the large number of seeds it produces and when birds eat its berries. The problem arises when it forms dense stands and crowds out native plants. It also hosts agricultural pests such as oat rust and soybean aphid.

    Phragmites is the largest worry currently with invasive plants. Although it can crowd out native plants in wetlands and wet areas, many people are not aware of the significant hazard it poses even though it lines our provincial highways. Eradication will take a massive effort that will cost millions of dollars.

    Will buckthorn or Japanese knotweed be the next phragmites? Let’s step back in time and imagine the lack of problems if these plants had been controlled when first discovered.

    In Haldimand, wild parsnip has been discovered along the Grand River. When established, it can also crowd out native plants and its sap contains a chemical that can cause a reaction to sunlight in humans – as does giant hogweed.

    The province’s invasive species web site is a great tool – http://www.invadingspecies.com – in fact I use it often.

    Other measures to combat invasive species need be considered. Bringing back the province’s junior ranger program to southern Ontario and having its members tackle issues like buckthorn and phragmites could be an option. Norfolk County has its Norfolk Environmental Stewardship Team or NEST, formed in the wake of the cancellation of the junior ranger program.

    Getting rid of an invasive alien species is no easy task. Speed is of the essence, coupled with public awareness and funding, when tackling invasive threats – This is something researchers and experts preach on both sides of the border, and hopefully the message is getting through in both countries.
    Haldimand-Norfolk MPP Toby Barrett

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