Experience of a Macrophyte Survey Volunteer: Ellie Huang

It’s a cool day and you are wading through the tranquil waters of Canandaigua Lake. Suddenly, a sharp pain shoots through your foot. You have just stepped on one of the troublesome invasive species in the Finger Lakes region—a water chestnut. 

Our freshwater resources are increasingly more valuable and vulnerable. One of the major threats to most bodies of water are invasive species. These species disturb ecosystems by spreading disease, displacing native species, and destroying habitats. The water chestnut, for example is an invasive species that spreads by clinging onto boats, fishing equipment, etc. and reproduces rapidly. This causes dense growths of water chestnut that can impede ships and swimmers and displace native vegetation. When the water chestnuts die, the decomposing leaves use up the dissolved oxygen in the water which can lead to fish kills. Hydrilla is another invasive species prevalent in the finger lakes area. Similar to water chestnuts, hydrilla grow very quickly which cause problems like lowering dissolved oxygen, destroying food and habitat for native species, and interfering with recreational water use. Luckily, programs like the Finger Lakes Institute Macrophyte Survey Program (MSP) are great ways to help your local watershed battle with these pesky invasive species. 

As an MSP volunteer, I monitor a local waterbody for invasive species and keep track of what kinds of native species are present. I typically do rake tosses about once a week, but you can adjust the frequency and timing to work with your schedule! Here is a look at a typical MSP rake toss.

First, I drive down to my nearest waterbody (this can be any lake/inlet within the Finger Lakes watershed!) and find a dock to set up. I always bring my MSP kit (includes a rake, identification booklet, sampling container, ruler for scale) and sometimes a bottle of water if it’s hot.

Next, I throw the rake into the water. Sometimes throwing the rake farther out is more effective while other times just dropping the rake is enough. I wait for about a minute to give the rake time to settle to the bottom where most plants are.

Next step is my favorite! I pull the rake out of the water and get to see all the plants I have collected. Somedays there will be many clusters of bushy coontail, while other days there might only be a tiny strand of water stargrass. 

Next is identification. I separate the plants based on species. Usually, plants of the same species will be tangled together in a bunch. I look for things like leaf shape and pattern, color, and number of leaves to distinguish different species. Once I have my piles, I start identifying each pile using the same qualities. I use the booklet or google if I am struggling. Remember, guessing is totally fine!


Some of my most common finds are coontail, water stargrass, and Eurasian water milfoil. Coontail is identifiable by its structure. While most plant leaves will flop over when pulled from the water, coontail maintains its structure. Another characteristic are its unique forked leaves. Fortunately, coontail is a harmless native species! Water stargrass is another native species. It is a very ordinary looking plant that resembles grass. I identify it by its thin, alternating leaves. I recently identified my first invasive species which was Eurasian water milfoil. I identified this plant by its floppy structure, thin leaves, and bushy leaflets.

(If you are doing another rake toss, now is a good time to throw the rake into the water so it can sink while you work)

After identifying the plants, it is time to upload the data. Using the app Surve123 I fill out the MSP data form. The form asks for location, water depth, species identified, and photos, along with a few other basic questions. When taking photos, I try to photograph identifying characteristics of the plants. Afterwards I just hit send!

Protecting the health of our waterbodies is simple, fun, and essential! There are many ways to get involved in watershed protection by joining one of the volunteer programs offered by the Canandaigua Lake Watershed Association, Finger Lakes Institute, or other local environmental groups. Contact the CLWA office to learn more (585) 394-5030. 

About the writer:

Hi! I’m Ellie Huang and I am a rising senior at Pittsford Sutherland High School. I’m passionate about sustainability and protecting our natural resources—especially water. Next year, I’m hoping to major in environmental studies! If I’m not out enjoying nature, you can typically find me talking with friends at a coffee shop, practicing violin, playing volleyball, or working out at the gym.