By Shelby Frink
A scientist may have found a native aquatic plant in Ohio that was once thought to be wiped out in the state.
The watermilfoil species has not been seen in Ohio in at least 20 years, said Mark Warman, the scientist who found the plant on private property last September after his friend posted photos on the social network iNaturalist.
But scientists can’t be sure until it blooms this summer.
Warman, the aquatic invasive species project coordinator for Cleveland Metroparks, is waiting on scientists in Ohio and Michigan to confirm his findings before publicly identifying the species.
The plant was not in bloom when it was discovered, he said. Aquatic plants can be hard to identify because the same plant can look different depending on the habitat and conditions.
“Not a lot of people put a lot of effort into caring about seaweed,” said Eugene Braig IV, the program director for Aquatic Ecosystems Extension at Ohio State University.
Some people get rid of aquatic plants for aesthetic reasons, Warman said. Native watermilfoil is worth protecting because it can add to the diversity and the health of Ohio’s aquatic ecosystems.
It is important for people to accurately identify the species of watermilfoil before applying herbicide because Ohio’s native watermilfoils are endangered, Braig said. The odds of killing a native species are slim, but possible.
Native aquatic plants, including watermilfoil, produce oxygen for aquatic wildlife, enhance water quality and are less likely to become a problem, he said. Invasive species create imbalances in habitats.
Most watermilfoil in Ohio is Eurasian watermilfoil, Braig said.
Eurasian watermilfoil is a widespread invasive species in the Great Lakes region, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It becomes so thick that it blocks sunlight and kills other native aquatic plants that provide food and shelter for animals.
Eurasian watermilfoil provides some habitat and structure, but it does not give back to the ecosystem the same way native plants would, Warman said. It is not going to provide the same food and may not be as edible for insects and animals.
Eurasian watermilfoil also harms the quality of fisheries because fish do not like unfamiliar weeds, said Joe Testa, a fishing guide in Michigan and New York.
Some of the healthiest fisheries have a lot of different aquatic plants, Warman said. Ohio does not have much aquatic plant diversity compared to other states.
The native species that was found is not desirable in other parts of the United States because it is too widespread, Warman said. However, historically it’s been under control in Ohio, so there is a good chance Ohio’s habitat may be more suitable for it.
Ohio’s endangered watermilfoils are common in some states, like Michigan, so reintroduction to Ohio might be possible, Braig said. State programs like H2Ohio, work to restore lost habitats.
H2Ohio and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources officials declined to be interviewed for this story.
“It’s not the kind of thing to get a lot of headlines,” Braig said. “It’s not photogenic like a fish.”
Funding for early detection and rapid response to aquatic invasive plants is provided by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.