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Aquatic Invasive Species and the Impact on Triathlon

By Tim Campbell

In 2007, I was balancing a summer research internship in the beautiful Wisconsin Northwoods while attempting to remain a competitive triathlete. Things were going well; I was getting miles in on the bike, running in the morning, and I had a pristine lake, Roach Lake, to swim in. While I managed to do some science while I was there, I was really focused on training. I had it all planned out on my calendar, and one June weekend included a Saturday morning swim in Roach Lake, a quick trip south to Lake Winnebago for a Sunday race, and then a Monday afternoon swim. Unfortunately, science got in the way of this awesome weekend of racing, and I ended up spending most of the weekend collecting Chinese mystery snails. It wasn’t until five years later that I realized how catastrophic that plan could have been for my immaculate Roach Lake. The reason why? Lake Winnebago is a host to a handful of aquatic invasive species (AIS), and wetsuits are one way AIS can move around. Had I gone to that race, I would have thrown my sandy wetsuit in a plastic bag, and kept it there until I had to pull on that damp wetsuit for my Monday afternoon swim. On that wetsuit could have been zebra mussel larvae, Eurasian water milfoil fragments, or even a fish virus that I could have introduced to my pristine Roach Lake. To help prevent such a catastrophic event from happening elsewhere, I’m sharing some information on how to prevent the spread of AIS so that everyone’s favorite open water swim stays as perfect as ever.

Zebra Mussel Beach (Michigan Sea Grant)
Let’s start with the basics. Aquatic invasive species are non-native species that have great economic or ecological harm, or harm human health. Perhaps the biggest impacts AIS have on triathletes are the cut feet from zebra mussel shells, or the feeling of being pulled under the water by Eurasian watermilfoil. While these impacts make some locations less desirable for an open water swim, the typical triathlete can tolerate these impacts. However, AIS have huge economic and ecological impacts worldwide. It is estimated that AIS cost the U.S. economy $7.5 billion each year, and where present detrimentally affect fishing and other recreation. It is also estimated that 50 percent of endangered and threatened species are classified as such because of the negative impacts of invasive species.

Most AIS were initially introduced to the U.S. as unintended impacts of international trade. After their initial invasions, AIS spread throughout the U.S. through many different pathways. Recreational boating has been targeted as the one of these pathways. Recreational boaters have accidentally moved zebra mussels from where they were first detected in the Great Lakes to water bodies in Western states. While new boating laws and educational efforts have addressed this invasion pathway, other invasion pathways exist and need addressed to fully prevent the spread of AIS.

Most other pathways involve recreational equipment that comes in contact with the water (e.g. fishing equipment, swim toys, clothing). All recreational equipment that comes in contact with water has the potential to move AIS. As mentioned earlier, wetsuits are one such vector. Zebra mussel larvae have been documented to survive out of water on wetsuits, and it has been suggested that wetsuits and SCUBA gear have facilitated invasions of freshwater jellyfish into some water bodies. Additionally, buoys and safety boats used for the swim portion of triathlons also have the potential to move AIS. The growth the sport of triathlon has experienced combined with how quickly people can travel between places has made it so triathlon could be a viable vector for AIS. It only makes sense for the triathlon community to take all the possible prevention steps to at least preserve the integrity of swimmer’s feet, if not prevent the large economic and ecological consequences of new invasions.

A diver in a weed-choked lake. (WDNR)
Luckily, the prevention steps are simple, and everyone likely already does them. Proper cleaning and drying of recreational equipment that comes in contact with infested waters is one of the most effective ways of preventing the spread of AIS. Removing mud and vegetation from a wetsuit, buoy, or boat is an important first step. Plant material itself can be invasive, and some aquatic plants can establish populations with only a fragment of the original plant. Also, many small, often times microscopic, organisms are hidden in the mud or on an aquatic plant. Mud and plants may stay damp longer than other materials, and help invaders survive until their new destination.  The next step depends on when the equipment will be used again. If the wetsuit needs to be used the next day, wash it with a wetsuit specific detergent and dry it as much as possible. Boats and other equipment can be cleaned with a mild bleach solution, and also dried as much as possible. If the equipment won’t be used again for at least five days, then great! Just let the equipment completely dry out, and it should be AIS free when it is summoned again for use. Now everyone can feel even better about that the cleaning and drying they normally do; not only is it prolonging the life of the equipment and making it more pleasant to use, it is helping prevent the spread of AIS. That is a win-win if I have ever heard one.

The impacts of aquatic invasive species are pervasive throughout many aspects of our lives; whether they are increasing our electricity bill, causing fish prices to increase, or cutting feet while running on the beach, their impacts are widespread and costly. Awareness is the first step in addressing the issue, which is then followed by taking action. Cleaning any equipment that comes in contact with water is one thing that everyone can do to reduce the probability of future invasions, and to ensure that the sport continues to enjoy the pristine habitats that we train and compete in.

Tim Campbell is an Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) Outreach Specialist for the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Program., and specializes in AIS education and working with stakeholders to help prevent the spread of AIS.  Tim can be reached at, and you can follow Tim and UW Sea Grant’s work on Facebook and Twitter.