BY KATHRYN BOUGHTON, Republican-American
BARKHAMSTED — There are some distinctions not worth having. Such is the case in Barkhamsted, where an entirely new organism — slimy and obnoxious to anglers — has been discovered in the west branch of the Farmington River.
Mike Beauchene, a state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection biologist, and Diba Khan-Bureau, a Three Rivers Community College professor, first reported the new species, Didymosphenia hullii, in the west branch of the Farmington in 2012. The new species was named after the late Dr. David Hull, director of transplant surgery at Hartford Hospital.
Beauchene described the didymo threat last Friday before a small audience of Friends of American Legion and People’s Forest. Beauchene said scientists always believed it was “not a matter of if, but when,” Didimosphenia geminate, aka didymo, would appear in local streams.
“The west branch of the Farmington River is a blue-ribbon trout stream,” he said. “It attracts people from Europe, New Zealand, Canada; people from everywhere come to the West Branch of the Farmington. If you are a trout fisherman, this is where you want to go.”
Thus, he said, the stream is a “perfect storm” of potential conditions.
“The trout like it and it has the clean, cold, nutrient-free conditions the algae like — all you need is a transfer mechanism,” Beauchene said. The visiting anglers supply that.
Cells of the algae can live out of the water for 30 days, hitching a ride on waders.
“Waders are a perfect habitat,” said Beauchene, who advised anglers to have separate waders for different bodies of water to avoid transference. “We encourage cleaning with a salt or detergent solution, draining and drying anything that comes in contact with river water. Make sure everything is thoroughly dry, or you can put it in the freezer overnight.”
Though anglers are a natural agent for transference, he said didymo is a natural occurrence in the Northern Hemisphere, from Alaska to Siberia. In New Zealand, it acted “like a typical invasive species, tending to go berserk. We haven’t seen the same reaction in North American because we have more forests,” Beauchene said.
In 2011, the call he was expecting came.
“That was our D-Day,” he said. “I got a call at 9:30 at night from a fisherman who said he had left a sample of what he thought was didymo at our headquarters.”
Beauchene retrieved the sample and confirmed the suspicion.
“It kind of triggered a panic in the angling community and watershed groups,” he said.
Suggestions poured in recommending draconian measures, such as massive doses of chlorine.
“I was pretty amazed at the radical thoughts,” Beauchene said. “In 2011, you really had to look to find it.”
The epicenter of the bloom in 2011 was around the Hitchcock Chair Co. and the confluence with the Still River, but it did not extend above Route 20 or beyond the confluence, where the water became warmer and had more phosphorous, forming a natural barrier. The following year brought no dramatic increase in blooms, but in Church Pool, Beauchene found something else.
“It wasn’t didymo,” he said. “The cells were crescent-shaped. I thought, ‘Uh-oh, what’s going on now?’ This type of rock snot, Cymbella janischii, is native to the Northwestern U.S. and Canada, but it hadn’t been found east of the Rockies. This one doesn’t have the anal retentive characteristics of didymo. It can deal with warmer temperatures and phosphorous.”
Then the story got more interesting, he said. While scanning algae cells, the scientists discovered a new species. “We started doing the things you do to prove a new species,” he said. “After a couple years, it came back that there was a new species to Earth — which was kind of cool.”
Studies have shown that, to date, the biggest impact of all forms of didymo in the river has been on insects.
“It hasn’t become a large-scale concern,” he said, “but we are trying to prevent spread to new waters. Our concern with the new species is that it can tolerate warmth and normal levels of phosphorous, and will spread to other rivers. We just have to treat it as the new normal.