Scout works to deter spread of invasive freshwater algae

Tyler S. Gee, 16, can add several descriptives after his name, including rising junior at Hereford High School and aspiring Eagle Scout and aerospace engineer. Now he can tack on one more — riverkeeper — because of his efforts to deter the spread of an invasive algae found in the Gunpowder River.

The Hereford resident has built eight wader washing stations, to state-established specifications, and positioned them along the northern Baltimore County waterway. Each wooden platform has a stiff brush, a basin of salt water, directions for use and a brief history of didymo, a freshwater algae that, if left unchecked, can spread and destroy aquatic life.

"Sixty seconds in the solution destroys the didymo," said Gee, explaining that anglers must wash their shoes, or waders, at the stations to make sure the slippery growth — dubbed "rock snot" by anglers — does not pass from their soles to the water.

"It just feels like a dirty, gooey mess," said Gee, who prefers tubing to fishing on the river. "In the winter, it turns the water white. It blocks out everything and ruins the river ecology. Fish can't eat so they die."

Jonathan McKnight, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, hailed Gee's efforts and emphasized that, once it is established, the algae cannot be eliminated.

"He has really stepped up and has really worked hard to help the river," McKnight said. "Maybe this effort will stop the next didymo."

The algae, native to British Columbia, is hitchhiking around the planet and invading trout streams, usually by way of the felt-covered soles of fishermen's waders, McKnight said.

"It really is the Typhoid Mary of the algae world," he said. "It coats the river bottom and rocks, making it tough to fish."

Anglers' boots and gear are the perfect vectors for spreading didymo, he said.

"There is something anglers can do about it," he said. "All they have to do is step through salt water on their way out of a stream."

Fly fishermen seek to fish the best spots in the world — which is why the didymo is showing up in popular trout-fishing areas, he said.

"Guys who fly fish are likely to go all over the world," McKnight said. "They will go from Alaska to New Zealand, investing money in plane tickets and gear. Their boots provide great traction, but the soles with densely packed felt are like a sponge that soaks up the algae. They will stay wet for a long time and allow the algae to thrive. It can incubate for weeks without a problem. "

In Maryland, felt-sole waders have been illegal since 2011. Those anglers who continue to wear them face a fine. Rubber-soled shoes with studs still capture the algae cells but are easier to clean and the cells don't stay alive as long.

DNR built a few wader washing stations and posted signs on them.

"Then Tyler came along and offered to build more," McKnight said. "It shows a real commitment to the river."

The Gunpowder is one of the best cared-for rivers in Maryland and one of the few infected with the invasive algae.

"Tyler's project makes it possible for anglers to leave the Gunpowder, clean their shoes and not move this algae to other rivers or upstream," he said.

There is an urgency to the project.

"Once you got it, you got it for good," McKnight said of the algae. "There is no means to get rid of it. If a river is degraded, eventually the environment is degraded."

Gee said he was well aware of the algae's presence. It took him about six weeks to build eight wader washing stations to DNR specifications at his home. They are now all located along the river, easy to see at spots popular with anglers, such as the one a few miles north of Hereford High School on York Road.

"I put it right beside a parking lot, so anglers can't miss it," he said.

Gee's other stations are about a mile into the wooded areas surrounding the river. Judging from the muck in the standing water, he said, the wader stations are getting good use. He raised $500 for the project, mostly through family movie nights at a popular gym.

Theaux LeGardeur, who operates a fishing shop in Monkton, is maintaining the wader washing stations.

"This is a great project for the river and great outreach to anglers," he said. "It is great to see youth so interested in our natural resources."

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