Elodea spp. (Elodea) is Alaska’s first known invasive aquatic plant, first discovered in urban lakes in 2010. The combination of human pathways and climate change related shifts in seasonality and temperature have resulted in Elodea’s range expansion into Alaska’s freshwater resources. Elodea transmission often occurs when plant fragments get entangled in seaplane rudders and are carried to remote waterbodies where they quickly establish dense plant growth. This growth inhibits seaplane access and drastically alters aquatic ecosystems. Recent research showed that Elodea can have significant negative impacts on parks, subsistence, aviation‐related recreation, and Alaska’s salmon fisheries. For example, the economic loss for commercial sockeye fisheries from Elodea is estimated at $159 million/year.
Alaska has the opportunity now to improve management tools that prevent and minimize further Elodea spread, economic loss, and degradation of native ecosystems. However, the understanding of Elodea transmission needs to be improved to inform these tools. Despite the high economic and ecological risk, little is known about seaplane transmission processes. Currently, the seaplane risk assessment that Alaska’s agencies use to target detection efforts covers only 700 out of over 200,000 possible destinations statewide. To address these gaps, this project will leverage existing data and partnerships between Alaska’s resource management agencies, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks International Arctic Research Center and University of Alaska Lab for Data Science and Artificial Intelligence The objectives of this work are to: 1) develop a system to automatically detect entangled aquatic vegetation on seaplanes using FAA‐permissible cameras and artificial intelligence, and 2) expand existing predictive models for aquatic invasive species introduction risk to encompass a much larger risk domain than currently available for agency management.
The development of an in‐flight warning system could inform pilots about vegetation entanglement, allowing them to immediately mitigate transmission, and the expanded pathway model will allow agencies to have much more comprehensive information on the seaplane pathway, thus improving current monitoring practices to focus beyond known seaplane destinations. The project will directly inform agencies’ detection and monitoring efforts aimed at eradicating Elodea in Alaska. Nationwide, the research will fill critical information gaps on how seaplanes carry aquatic invasive species, addressing an increasing concern of federal resource managers across the contiguous United States.
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“Alaskan Mountain range; Credit: Eric Vance.”