Around the Water Cooler: Invasive Species Along for the Ride

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

"Floating dock washes up on the Oregon coast."

Floating dock washed up on the Oregon coast.

It’s been nearly two years since the earthquake and tsunami wreaked havoc on Japan, yet debris and material continue to wash up on the shores of our west coast, even today. Last summer, part of a dock washed up on a state park beach in Oregon, and in December, another dock piece was found on a remote beach in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary in Washington.

Invasive species, like seaweed, crabs and other marine animals, attached to this traveling debris and material can cause problems here in the United States.  The wrong invasive species could devastate the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, which is the most diverse coastal ecosystem on the west coast.

Invasive species can disrupt native plant communities and crowd out native species. They can also change the habitat, affecting species in addition to those they may directly displace. Once established in an ecosystem, invasive species are difficult to eliminate.

We won’t know what direct effects these invasive species will have on our ecosystems until we can identify them. Researchers typically wait until the tide goes out to scrape samples off the washed up debris. Of course, that’s time consuming and labor intensive.

But researchers at EPA have been working with other scientists around the world on a technique called DNA barcoding to rapidly and accurately identify species from water samples. Instead of finding and counting species which may not visually be distinct, DNA barcoding relies on identifying species-specific sequences of genes. Scientists and researchers around the world are gathering this information and adding it to a database that can be used to quickly identify invasive species and ways to protect ecosystems.

 Read more about protocols and DNA barcoding here.

 About the Author: Lahne Mattas-Curry loves water, clean beaches, hot sun and good seafood. She communicates the Safe and Sustainable Water Resources research that EPA scientists and engineers work on so that others can enjoy clean water, clean beaches, hot sun and good seafood, too.