Rowers and Aliens: An Unlikely Alliance

Ok, so judging from the title I am very aware that I have a lot of explaining to do. What on earth (0r not, apparently) could I possibly be referring to now? Before we get carried away, I should point out that rowers and the traditional type of alien do not have a real alliance and they are not plotting the downfall of human kind. Nor am I implying that rowers are aliens, though if I’m honest, when I think of some fellow rowers, I haven’t totally ruled out that possibility. I am of course, when I say ‘aliens’, referring to those devilish little blighters, invasive non-native species and when I say rowers, I do just mean rowers.

So, now aliens have been explained as those invasives that find themselves in our ecosystems, how have they affiliated themselves with rowers? Those strange beings that put themselves through gruelling training regimes and seem to enjoy sitting in a boat on a river in their finest lycra, even in the depth of winter? Well, its less to do with the rowers themselves and more to do with what we are doing on the waterways and lakes of our country. So, what do we do every morning, weekend and any time we have a spare moment? We grab a boat, put it on the water, attach oars, go for a row, take the boat and oars out and put them away again. Sound ominous? Not really. In fact, in plain terms it sounds decidedly dull and unappealing. But wait. Sometimes we mix things up. Sometimes we take boats and blades to other rivers and lakes so that we can row there, or even race each other. Again, it sounds like no big deal, but these generic items that we use for rowing, those boats and blades, may be more sinister than they seem. For these pieces of equipment could carry cuttings of plants, or very small animals that we are unaware of. We could be taking a species from one river and introducing it to another and be totally oblivious to it. Not a problem for the most part, but when these species are unwanted, when they are invasives that we seek to control, the problem is very real indeed.

Although it may sound unlikely, activities such as rowing, angling, canoeing and boating are all very real potential pathways for the spread of aquatic invasives. Invasive plants such as Japanese Knotweed can become entangled in equipment and even small cuttings of such a species can spawn a whole new population in a new waterway. Animal species such as the up and coming invasive Asian Clam, which is present in Ireland and now Britain can also be spread through these activities when its larval form is transported in water in boats. But does it matter? So what if we have a few clams from Asia? Well, the impact they can have on the ecosystem is huge, from adding available phosphorous and nitrogen, outcompeting native mussels, impacting important invertebrate communities and impacting fish spawning sites. Invasive species in general can have huge impacts on our wildlife and economy, costing billions of pounds to control and damaging the very functioning of our native ecosystems. Himalayan Balsam (left) and Japanese Knotweed (right)
Himalayan Balsam (left) and Japanese Knotweed (right)

So, we know about the problem of invasives and we know the ways in which they may be spreading. So what do we do to stop it? What are our bio-security controls in rowing? Well, rather shamefully, we have none. At the end of a session, or races in different waters, we give the boat a wash with plain water and even then this is just to wash the mud or scum marks from the boat. Unfortunately, as with many sports and activities, people are so focused on the sport, little else seems to matter. However, it does not mean that introducing bio-security controls are unachievable. When foot and mouth reared its ugly head, we all had to spray the wheels of our cars with disinfectant when we came to the main towns near us. It took two minutes and though it was a minor nuisance, people understood how important it was. So, why not the same with rowing or any other water sport for that matter? If such a thing could be developed and if we marketed it in a way that suggested that without it our sports would suffer, people would be only too happy to get involved. After all, with rowing the boat is washed at the end of a session anyway, so spraying disinfectant would be no big deal. Asian Clam
Asian Clam

With aquatic invasives more needs to be done to stop their spread. Raising awareness is key if we want to get everyone involved with trying to halt the spread of non-native species. However, we have to make people care and make it worth their while. If I were to go down to rowing tomorrow and announce that we had an invasive species and everyone therefore needs to spend an hour washing and disinfecting all their equipment and clothes for the good of the environment, I am ashamed to say that many of them would not do it. However, tell them that it will take 5 minutes tops and that if we don’t we may no longer be able to row, they would jump to work. Now, I am not saying that rowers are completely devoid of any interest. In fact, if you go on the British Rowing website, there is a page on invasive species and how to minimise the risk of spread. However, it is club level that I am talking about. I would wager that if I asked people from my club about invasives, I would get one of two looks, blank or utterly uninterested. Simply having a page saying that we need to wash boats thoroughly is not enough and it certainly does not make everyone aware of the problem.

Such small efforts may seem unimportant or futile, but it is these small changes that can help to stop or at least reduce the spread of these non-native species. Without these small controls and more awareness we cannot hope to win the battle of the invasives. Whether you’re a rower, canoeist, angler, water-skier, or involved in anything that could spread aquatic invasives, get clued up. Find out if your area, or the area you’re going to has them and take the proper precautions to protect against their spread. The information is out there and it is those in the public that have the power to make all the difference!

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Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard
I have been a bird enthusiast since I was a child and have just completed my MSc at Newcastle University on 'Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management.'
Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard

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