FAIRBANKS -- State and federal officials are assessing an invasive freshwater plant that has gotten a foothold in Alaska to determine what kind of threat it poses to the environment.
The common waterweed plant, with the scientific name Elodea canadensis, was found in the Chena Slough and the Chena River this summer by the U.S. Forest Service, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.
Biologists say it probably got dumped into the slough from an aquarium sometime in the past decade.
Just how big a problem it will be in Alaska remains to be seen.
"We don't know what level of a threat it is," said Forest Service ecologist Trish Wurtz, who found the plant with biological technician Nick Lisuzzo.
"It's the first invasive aquatic plant found in Alaska, so it's not clear how we're supposed to deal with this," Wurtz said.
Also known as Canadian waterweed, Elodea is native to southern Canada and the eastern U.S. It has invaded most of northern Europe and has spread all the way across Russia to Lake Baikal. It has invaded slow-moving stream systems in New Zealand and is a major problem in irrigation canals in Australia, Wurtz said.
She said the sale of Elodea has been outlawed by about 10 states, including Maine, New Hampshire and Washington, because of its invasive behavior when released in the wild.
Wurtz and Lisuzzo found dense patches of Elodea extending through a mile of Chena Slough, almost filling the slough in some areas. They also found the plant in the Chena River, both floating freely and growing attached to the river bottom in several places.
Amy Larsen, an aquatic ecologist for the National Park Service in Fairbanks who confirmed the finding by Wurtz and Lisuzzo, said "it's a pretty huge concern."
Elodea is "highly productive" and can fill up slow-moving waterways and lakes, making fishing or boating virtually impossible, Larsen said. It could also alter stream flow, which could impact spawning salmon in the Chena River or Arctic grayling in Chena Slough.
"This has spread all the way across Russia," Larsen said. "There hasn't been anything that stopped it. The way people use motorboats and water vehicles in Alaska, it can easily spread in every direction."