The notion that Lake Superior proper is inhospitable to dreissenid mussel survival has been challenged by recent finds on shipwrecks and rocky reefs in the Apostle Islands region. Motivated by concerns surrounding these finds, we conducted an intensive sampling campaign of Apostle Islands waters in 2017 to understand Dreissena prevalence and distribution. The 100-site effort combined random and targeted sites and collected zooplankton, benthos, video, environmental DNA, and supporting water quality data. We did not find settled Dreissena in any video footage or benthos samples, and quantitative PCR applied to eDNA samples was negative for Dreissena. Dreissena veligers were found in almost half the zooplankton samples but at orders of magnitude lower densities than reported from other Laurentian Great Lakes. Veligers were most prevalent around the western islands and associated with shallower depths and slightly higher phosphorus and chlorophyll, but did not spatially match known (still very localized) settled Dreissena colonies. This is the first study to conduct veliger-targeted sampling in western Lake Superior and the first to report consistent detection of veligers there. We speculate that these Apostle Islands veligers are not a new locally-spawned component of the zooplankton community, but instead are transported from an established population in the St. Louis River estuary (~100 km away) by longshore currents; i.e., low-density propagule pressure that may have been present for years. Small-mesh zooplankton data collected along a gradient from the Apostle Islands to the St. Louis River estuary and enumerated with thorough veliger searching would help elucidate these alternatives.
Keywords: Apostle Islands National Lakeshore; Dreissenid mussels; aquatic invertebrate survey; early detection.