A recent academic study, conducted by Dr. Paul Venturelli, Ph.D. candidate Jessica Weir in Ball State’s Environmental Sciences program, Dr. Jay Bagga, and Dr. Adam Berland, in partnership with the world’s most popular fishing app Fishbrain, offers new insights into invasion superhighways, where aquatic invasive species are spreading across the US.

Jessica Weir explains aquatic invasive species research

Jesssica Weir reviews a chord diagram showing the connections from angler movement among the 18 major river basins.

“The invasion superhighway is a national network through which aquatic invasive species are spreading. Our research derived this network from pathways that were heavily and frequently traveled by anglers,” Jessica Weir described. “Invasive species have both ecologic and economic impacts. Aquatic invasive species threaten native species and disturb the aquatic food chain which can in turn lower the quality of the fishery. Invasive species have high economic costs as well. Aquatic invasive species can clog intake pipes for industrial facilities, harm human health, and cost an estimated $26 billion globally each year.”

Using data from the Fishbrain app, which has over 14 million registered users worldwide, researchers have revealed a network of human movements that form invasion superhighways. The data allows for the identification of potential invasion fronts. Ultimately, the research underscores not only the potential of expansive data sources such as Fishbrain but also the important role that anglers can play in preventing aquatic invasive species from spreading further.

The Role of Anglers

Ball State’s research indicates that anglers can be part of the solution to the spread of invasive species by taking simple steps to adapt their habits. For example, avoiding fishing in different waters in the same, seven-day period can help to prevent the spread of invasive species across different waters. Cleaning angling equipment between uses is another useful step. In the future, we will also see more data on which waters are the largest hubs for invasive species so that anglers know where to be most mindful, and ensure their angling practices reflect this necessity.

Ball State University found that smartphone apps can effectively collect data that is integral to research, and that these tools also help to encourage public engagement. Anglers, as well as other groups visiting waterways for recreation, can play a significant role both in contributing to data collection and in preventing possible invasions – by becoming part of the solution.

“We at Fishbrain are delighted that our data illuminating angler behavior, fishing patterns and fishing trends has been able to support this important project. Anglers can play a vital role in looking after the environment, so it is great that by sharing data on angler movements, researchers are better able to understand potential risks. We hope that by sharing the outcomes of this research, our users will feel encouraged to educate themselves about aquatic invasive species and how they can help to prevent their spread.” – Johan Attby, CEO at Fishbrain

Data and the Future of Conservation

One of the key tools in the fight to conserve aquatic life across the US is data. Historically, it has been difficult to gather data on the movement of invasive species, especially when this spans large areas and different jurisdictions. However, tech and data are now providing a solution to this issue.

By partnering with Fishbrain, researchers at Ball State University were able to use data logged by millions of anglers over the last decade to follow the movements of aquatic invasive species and how they correlate with the movements of anglers. This provides an unprecedented understanding of the ‘superhighways’ of angler movement that invasive species travel along.

Tech platforms can serve as educational tools that advocate for responsible fishing practices, and take action and prevent accelerating the transmission of aquatic invasive species. The continued cooperation of tech platforms to protect aquatic life will be a key tool in tackling invasive species.

“This research allows us to understand how invasive species are spreading in the US in unprecedented ways, which represents a huge step in conservation efforts. Technology is giving us the tools to help conserve bodies of water across the US, so we must use it effectively if we are to protect aquatic life,” commented Paul Venturelli, Associate Professor of Fisheries and Director of Ph.D. in Environmental Sciences at Ball State University. “Collaboration with tech platforms, like Fishbrain, can offer the data to help us understand the spread of invasive species, but this data can also be used to determine the need for inter-jurisdictional collaboration. Our research shows that invasive species are moving across counties and states, so the effort to combat the spread of these species must be similarly expansive. The new knowledge gained in this research will also enable anglers to help protect the waters they fish in, by adopting sustainable angling habits.”

Access the paper in full here: https://academic.oup.com/pnasnexus/article/1/3/pgac075/6604388

For more info on specific steps any water recreationist can take to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species, check out the Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers! campaign website. It has tips for all recreational users and includes a general procedure to clean, drain, and dry equipment.

To continue reading about the research done in Ball State’s Environmental Sciences program, check out our article on a Ph.D. candidate’s experience on a deep-sea drilling expedition.