Champlain canal system locks to remain open for now
By Zachary Matson
State officials recently outlined plans to prevent the invasive round goby fish from reaching Lake Champlain, stopping short of promising to close a lock on the canal system as some environmental groups requested.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation and Canal Corp. on March 24 announced they planned to develop a detailed “rapid response” strategy before the canal system opens May 20. The strategy would identify possible responses if round goby were identified approaching the Champlain canal system.
The state agencies did highlight some changes already in the works for locks C7 and C8 near Fort Edward, including a new approach to draining water out of the locks as boats pass through and a more defined schedule for using those two locks.
The canal agency said for the first time it would employ “double draining” at the two locks in an attempt to flush the water and any invasive fish downstream before allowing a boat to move upstream. At those two locks, canal operators would essentially fill and release water twice, creating a stronger current to drive fish downstream.
“It’s adding a level of force and current, pushing the water in greater velocity back to the Hudson River,” Canal Corp. spokesperson Shane Mahar said.
State and federal agencies starting this month will ramp up round goby monitoring on the stretch of river leading to the Champlain Canal, using environmental DNA sampling and direct fish capture to track how close the invasive fish have gotten to entering the Lake Champlain system.
Round goby fish were captured near Troy in July, about 50 miles from the Champlain Canal system, raising concerns that the invasive species could make its way through the canal into the Lake Champlain basin.
The Nature Conservancy in February launched a campaign to raise awareness about the threat of round goby and called on Gov. Kathy Hochul to close one of the Champlain Canal locks this season. The organization argued it was the most effective way to block round goby’s passage to the lake.
While Nature Conservancy officials still say the best approach would be to keep one lock closed and employ a boat lift to maintain boat passage through the canal, they also applauded the state agencies for taking the problem seriously.
“It’s a significant step forward that the Canal Corporation is taking responsibility for the problem of aquatic invasive species in the canal,” said Stuart Gruskin, chief conservation officer for the Nature Conservancy in New York. “It’s easier to not deal with an issue if you don’t own it. Now, one thing that’s clear is they now own it.”
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The round goby is native to the Caspian and Black seas. It is suspected to have made its way to the Great Lakes in shipping container ballast water around 1990. Within five years, the fish had invaded all of the Great Lakes. Prolific breeders, reproducing every 20 days during the hatching season, round goby feed on the eggs and fry of native fish while overtaking important habitat. They carry diseases that can pass to other fish and birds.
The round goby traversed the canal system down the Mohawk River, making its way to the Hudson River, where it now threatens Lake Champlain and the Hudson River estuary.
The state plan also includes a public education campaign about the risks of transporting invasive species, a study of other prevention strategies like electric barriers and an evaluation of the potential economic and ecological impact of round goby.
“DEC is working shoulder-to-shoulder with our partners at the Canal Corporation to address the threat of round goby and other invasive species to water bodies like Lake Champlain,” DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said in last month’s announcement.
Use of the canal has been down during the pandemic, but state officials expect rebounding use in the coming years. In 2021, canal operators recorded nearly 9,000 vessel lockages on the Champlain Canal, according to state data. (Each time a boat passes through a lock it counts as a lockage.) In 2017, the state data recorded nearly 18,000 vessel lockages on the Champlain Canal. Commercial vessels in particular were down from 2017 to 2021, dropping from nearly 6,000 lockages in 2017 to around 200 last year.
Mahar said the more detailed round goby response plan would be prepared in time for the May 20 planned opening of the canal system. That plan would include more specifics about how the state would respond if round goby were identified at the door to Lake Champlain. Gruskin said he expects state officials to be transparent about their plans and what they learn as they monitor for round goby.
“They have an obligation to share all of that information with the public given how high the stakes are,” Gruskin said.
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