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Fighting a dangerous invader one stalk at a time

By JT McVeigh, The Enterprise-Bulletin

The threat of phragmites along the shorelines and the wetlands of Southern Georgian Bay is something that David Sweetham and Georgian Bay Forever are more than familiar with.


Annually the organization has recruited volunteers to physically cut and drag the invasive weed out of the water and the battle is being set up again this year.

This year the RBC Bluewater Project has injected more than $32,000 during a presentation into the effort to rid the beast from the region.

Now Sweetham is hoping for the right time for this year’s cull.

“This is a community-focused effort to muster enough manpower to remove phragmites from coastlines without using chemicals. In Ontario we aren’t allowed to use chemicals for something like this over waterways. Along roadways they can spray it but over the water, it’s just too dangerous,” says Sweetham. “The only way that we can remove it is stalk by stalk, piece by piece, but to do that we have to get people out there.”

Phragmites aren’t just a weed, they’re much more.

“Phragmites are like the Terminator of plants. You can hate it but you have to respect it, because it is just so good at competing with native plants.

“It not only grows faster and starts earlier than the native plants, but it also emits a chemical out of its root system that kills the other plants around it. It is just a voracious predator,” Sweetham says. “It is actually listed as the most dangerous invasive plant in all of North American right now.”

Native to Eurasia, it is speculated that the plant was transplanted in ship’s ballast and dumped into local waters.

It is something that the Eastern seaboard has been seeing for years, but in the last 10 years wetlands in the Great Lakes regions have been getting choked out.

About 20 years ago it was purple loosestrife that became the scourge of southern Ontario, but a concerted effort by hunter and angler associations mustered enough effort to keep the spread under control.

“But this plant doesn’t behave at all in an ecosystem; it actually tries to dominate and take over whatever place it is, whereas with loosestrife you could see it around the coastal margins so that frogs couldn’t get into the water,” says Sweetham. “This stuff just takes over, fish can’t swim through it, turtles die in it, and we have had dead raccoons that we found during the cutting at Rupert’s Landing last year. In Pointe Pelee they have even found deer trapped in it. There were two hunters that had to be rescued by a helicopter because they got into it and got lost.”

It truly is a monster, growing over 18 feet tall and there are up to 200 stems per square metre.

Phragmites are cultivated for thatched roofs, but there are actually 140 insect species that will prey on it in Eurasia. In North America, there is nothing. They have been on the East Coast since the 1800s, but it wasn’t until they were selling them at nurseries that it really expanded, said Sweetham.

“Even two years ago when we worked with the Nottawasaga Conservation Authority and RBC, we went around to the nurseries asking them to stop selling them as grasses, there are actually a number of native grasses that aren’t invasive sell these instead,” says Sweetham.

Georgian Bay is preparing for this year’s cull when the plant is just beginning to flower and before it seeds, around Aug. 12.

“It takes a couple of years trimming the stumps after the first cull for the plant to die off, but it all takes time and labour,” says Sweetham. “But any cuts are better than no cutting at all.”


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