The spread of aquatic invasive species throughout Michigan waters and the increasing amount of microplastics in the Great Lakes are two areas being addressed through multiple programs within MSU Extension.
Working with Paddlers
A Michigan Sea Grant program is teaching paddlers to be aquatic invasive species detectives. While motorized boaters are being taught how to avoid transporting invasive species, paddlers are often not receiving the same information. Yet they still traverse the state’s many waterways. As more people engage in these water sports, the potential for spreading invasive species increases. Michigan Sea Grant and Michigan State University Extension, with financial support from the state, developed the Michigan Paddle Stewards program to engage the paddling community in searching for and reporting on aquatic invasive species.
Through a series of training workshops, paddlers learn to identify aquatic invasive species on Michigan’s watch list. Participants also receive training on using an online program and mobile app called MISIN, or the Midwest Invasive Species Information Network, to easily report species and their locations to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and local Cooperative Invasive Species Management Areas (CISMAs). In addition, workshops include demonstrations from MSU Extension’s Clean Boats, Clean Waters experts on cleaning techniques so paddlers avoid spreading invasive species themselves. Once they have completed the workshop, these new ecosystem ambassadors are encouraged to pass their knowledge to their fellow paddlers. More than 150 people participated and became certified MI Paddle Stewards in 2019.
Working with Retailers
Popular plants and animals sold at retail aquariums and water gardening stores are typically hardy, have high reproduction rates and grow vigorously. This combination makes them potentially successful aquatic invaders if introduced to the wild.
In response to this issue, Michigan State University Extension created the Reduce Invasive Pet and Plant Escapes or RIPPLE program with funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the Michigan Invasive Species Grant Program. The program works to foster mutual understanding with retailers, hobbyists, and natural resource professionals on aquatic invasive species and the handling and disposal options that can reduce the introductions of aquarium and ornamental pond species into Michigan’s waterways.
Since launching RIPPLE in 2016, the program has reached over 120,000 individuals through presentations, trainings, videos, social media and articles and over 50 retail stores display RIPPLE materials. The core message of RIPPLE is: “Never release your aquatic plants and animals into local waterways or compost piles.” For tips on how to safely contain and dispose of pond and aquarium plants and animals, consumers and retailers can visit mi.gov/invasivespecies. RIPPLE materials provides the same handling and disposal recommendations as the Great Lakes Sea Grant Network to maintain regional consistency.
A 2018 survey of Michigan pet and garden retailers demonstrated that these individuals generally understand that non-native aquatic organisms can pose an environmental risk, but do not feel a high level of responsibility for taking action to prevent organism release (Filice 2019). Survey results showed that 89% of retailers were contacted in the last year by customers with too many fish, and 69% were contacted by customers with too many aquatic plants. Currently only 50% of retailers accept returns of unwanted species. Survey results also found that if they were provided with tools, connections, and recognition for their conservation efforts they would be more willing to accept returns.
Findings from this survey are currently being used to develop of more effective invasive species prevention programs aligned with industry knowledge and attitudes.
Youth Leading the Challenge
Another emerging issue affecting Michigan waters is microplastic pollution. In northeast Michigan, the fight against microplastics in the Great Lakes is being championed by the Alpena 4-H Tech Changemakers.
The 4-H Changemakers, a Michigan State University Extension 4-H program, helps enable youth to address local community issues through technology. The project is a partnership between Microsoft and National 4-H Council that helps youth develop valuable leadership skills, make strong community connections, and prepare themselves for a lifetime of making positive change.
Alpena’s 4-H program is home to one of 13 Changemaker teams across the United States, all of whom are tackling their own local challenges. In Alpena, youth decided to address a community issue that was very close to home: the protection of the Great Lakes.
Through a series of educational presentations to community groups like the Alpena Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club, and the Alpena Community College Association of Lifelong Learners, 4-H youth educate the Alpena community on sources of microplastics, the harm they present to wildlife and human health, and how the problem can be tackled on the individual, community and national level. The youth also engage in community service through beach clean-ups and volunteering at community events to promote waste-reducing practices. In addition, the group used their tech literacy to design a website dedicated to marine debris education, with resources specific to the Great Lakes.
As a result of their work, there have been changes in the approaches the Alpena community is taking to address microplastic pollution. Both businesses and organizations alike have contacted the 4-H Tech Changemakers seeking guidance in reducing their organizational waste. Currently, the team is partnering with a local theater to implement new recycling and compost bins, bulk candy counters, and a “bring your own container program” for popcorn and soda. The Friends of the Alpena Farmer’s Market have also been inspired by the group to apply for a grant to increase the use of reusable bags. Throughout the city, 4-H Changemakers project is helping residents chart the course for a healthier Great Lakes region.