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Blog: Helping canoeists avoid transferring invasive species between river systems

Our latest Clear Access, Clear Waters blog comes from Dr Paul Jepson from Ecosulis.

On a hot Saturday in June I rolled up at the UK’s national water sport centre. The place was abuzz with cars, kayaks, club flags and paddle-carrying athletes chatting bucket starts, heats, duck tape and Nelos. Everyone was readying to race on a highly engineered stretch of freshwater. It looked and felt a world apart from my world of conservation science and policy. Yet walking along with my daughter to get her kayak weighed, I spied a Wildlife Trusts flag and two fellow conservationists raising awareness of biosecurity and invasive species. 

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Gemma Rose and Helen Carter-Emsell work for North Wales Wildlife Trust and had made the 120 mile journey to Nottingham to promote good conservation practices among kayaks.  Gemma explained that the River Dee, which rises in Snowdonia and flows into the sea near Chester on the Welsh/ English boarder is rich in native wildlife but also hugely popular with canoeists. 

Invasive species represent a key threat to the Dee river system and we are worried that people who use rivers for recreational activities such as canoeing have the potential to bring in invasive species and also transport ours to other river systems. The Welsh Government share these concerns and fund the Trusts Our River Wellbeing Project within the Dee catchment.

– Gemma Rose, North Wales Wildlife Trust

The Trust has teamed up with British Canoeing and the GB Non-Native Species Secretariat to raise awareness among canoeists of invasive species and the damage they can do to aquatic systems.

"Fragments of crassula or balsam seeds can get inside the boat and lodge under seats and foot pumps, on paddles, spray decks and clothes," explained Helen

We are asking kayakers to check clean and dry their boat and kit after races so they don’t transfer invasive species from river to river. We want to protect our native species.

– Helen Carter-Emsell, North Wales Wildlife Trust

The ‘check, clean and dry’ message emblazoned on the awareness materials was clear and simple and Gemma and Helen’s dedication to spray washing kayaks provide a practical demonstration of what was needed.

However, adopting this practice didn’t seem that straightforward to the kayakers whose ways I had come to know a little in my role as a ‘supporting Dad’

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I wandered back through the throng of competitors and supports to the Falcon club’s gazebo overlooking the race waterI slumped into a camping chair next to Keith Long, another Dad and a keystone volunteer for the club, and together we worked through what it would take to reduce the risk of canoeists spreading invasive species from river to river.

The first thing to mention is that canoeing is both a sport and a leisure pass-time. Many people own their own leisure canoes, but the focus of our discussion was club and sporting aspect of the hobby. This is organised into three disciplines sprint, slalom and marathon. The first two are Olympic disciplines and are cantered around purpose-built facilities.  Marathon is the popular every-day club sport with regular races organised and hosted by different clubs. Transporting kayaks from river to canal to river system is part of marathon racing and this is where the greatest risk of transferring invasive species lies. 

 Parked behind us was the club trailer. Keith told how he can transport 22 kayaks on the trailer and another 4 on his van roof if need be.

At marathon races we are parked up on grass fields. There are a hundred or more boats and no wash down facilities. People get home from races tired and cold, so they just shove their kayak in the boat shed and take it out for the next training session

– Keith Long, volunteer for Falcon Canoe Club

Working though the practicalities of ‘check clean and dry’ we agreed that realistically this could only happen back at a club, but this would require a facility to ensure that any washed off invasive didn’t enter the local watercourse.  It wasn’t hard to come up with a design – a rectangular trough filled with different grades of gravel, wiring for a couple of spray washed and fixed boat supports, although the costs of installing washdown facilities wouldn’t be massive it would be beyond the means of most clubs. Controlling invasive species is clearly a public good and this should be something government agencies should support. 

The next challenge would be to get kayakers to adopt the practice of washing down boats and equipment after they have travelled between river systems.  We discussed the possibility of juniors doing this as way to build awareness ‘youth-up’ and at the same time install values of volunteering and ‘giving back’ that are so important in club and community life.  ‘Give them the opportunity to use a spray washer!’ exclaimed Keith. They’d love it – under proper supervision of course! 

More problematic was the last component of the ‘Check, clean, dry’ message. Gemma was keen to stress that leaving boats to dry in UV light for 48 hours was the surest way to kill off hitch-hiking non-native species.  Unfortunately, drying boats in the open is impractical and undesirable for most kayakers.  The lack the space and security to leave them outside and sunlight cracks the protective varnish on high-end racing kayaks.

Richard Atkinson, Waterways and Environment Policy Officer with British Canoeing commented,Invasive species are top of my list of policy priorities. We have just begun our journey of engaging canoers in practice to reduce this.

We are still working through practicalities and ways to engage the clubs. Our partnership with the Wildlife Trust’s as a great step. As well as kayakers to adopt biosecurity practices we are also mobilising paddlers to help in the removal of invasive species such as pennywort and clear up plastic debris.

– Richard Atkinson, Waterways and Environment Policy Officer with British Canoeing

Driving home, I reflected on how great it was seeing a conservation charity and sporting association teaming up to tackle an important conservation issue. I also reflected on the probability of success and how this would be increased with a mix of research on the practices, attitudes and organisation of the canoeing fraternity, a sustained social marketing campaign and installation of wash-down facilities. All this requires money. The control of invasive species is a public good and there is clearly a need for competent government agencies to provide the finance to properly implement invasive species policy.