Invaders like the killer shrimp, zebra mussel and American signal crayfish have already caused extensive environmental damage and millions of pounds of economic costs.
The new research, led by the University of Leeds and the Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), found that the cleaning habits of anglers and canoeists could be a key part of the problem.
The study, based on a survey of more than 1,500 water sports enthusiasts across the UK, found that 64% of anglers and 79% of canoeists used their equipment in more than one waterway in a fortnight.
A significant proportion of those people (12% of anglers and 50% of canoeists) said they did not clean or dry their kit before moving to the new waters.
Dr Alison Dunn, Reader in Evolutionary Ecology in the University of Leeds' Faculty of Biological Sciences, who led the Leeds group, said: "This is really alarming because some of the most dangerous invasive species can easily survive in damp equipment.
"The killer shrimp, for instance can live in a fold of a wetsuit or an angling net for about 15 days. Once it gets into the new water system, it is voracious. It will take bites out of things and leave them uneaten, killing when it doesn't need to eat. The native shrimp is replaced, food stocks vital to other species are depleted and the ecosystems can be devastated."
In 2011, the Government, in partnership with a large number of environmental NGO's, launched a "Check, Clean, Dry" campaign to try to address the issue by encouraging water users to clean their gear before moving to new sites. While there has been significant support for the campaign, the study shows that there is still some way to go to further reduce the risk.
It also shows a risk of direct importation of new species from abroad. Eight percent of anglers and 28 per cent of canoeists reported using their equipment overseas without cleaning or drying it on their return.
Co-author Dr Paul Stebbing of Cefas said: "The killer shrimp is not the only invader capable of 'hitchhiking' into new ecosystems on water sports equipment. The signal crayfish, which has been laying waste to native white-clawed crayfish populations, persists between three and seven days. Some invasive viruses and diseases can survive well over a month."
The lead researcher on the study, Lucy Anderson of the University of Leeds' Faculty of Biological Sciences, said: "There are 4 million anglers and more than 400,000 boat owners in the UK and the frequency with which people are using their equipment at different sites suggests that they may be an important pathway for invasive species. Once invasive species establish in rivers and lakes, they're almost impossible to eradicate, so preventing their introduction and further spread in the first place is the best way that we have of controlling them."
The "Check, Clean, Dry" campaign asks water sports participants to:
Check all gear and clothing for live organisms, particularly in areas that are hard to inspect.
Clean and wash all clothing, footwear and equipment properly.
Dry all equipment thoroughly as many species can live for many days in moist conditions.
Dr Niall Moore, head of the Non-native Species Secretariat for Great Britain (NNSS), the official body responsible for fighting invasive species, said: "Invasive species can affect fish and other wildlife, restrict navigation, clog up propellers and be costly to manage. This research highlights the fact that water users in the UK may unknowingly be involved in moving these species between UK waterways on their shoes, clothing and equipment. We urge water users to help protect the water ways they love by following three simple steps when they leave the water: Check, Clean, Dry."
The research was conducted by researchers at the University of Leeds, University of York, and Cefas. It was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Cefas.
Graham Askew, Simon Walker, BBSRC (Jan 2018), £699,781
Jennifer Tomlinson, Royal Society (Jan 2018), £512,801
Jennifer Tomlinson, Royal Society-Research Fellows Enhancement Award (Dec 2017), £94,681
Helen Miller, AB AGri Grant (Dec 2017), £73,600
Simon Walker, Royal Society Enhancement Award (Dec 2017), £10,000
Carrie Ferguson, Bryan Taylor, Harry Rossiter, The Physiological Society (Dec 2017), £7,392
Ralf Richter, Royal Society (Dec 2017), £6,000
Christine Foyer, British Council Newton Fund (Dec 2017), £49,840
Adrian Whitehouse and colleagues in School of Chemistry and University of Liverpool, MRC (Nov 2017), £622,319
Michelle Peckham, Neil Ransom, MRC (Nov 2017), £495,159
Dave Lewis, British Council India (Nov 2017), £22,540
Elton Zeqiraj, Royal Society (Nov 2017), £15,000
Hannah Dugdale, Royal Society (Nov 2017), £15,000
Shaunna Burke, Cancer Research UK Innovation Grant (Nov 2017), £20,000
Alex O'Neill and colleagues in Chemistry, BBSRC (Nov 2017), £431,865
Jessica Kwok, Wings for Life (Nov 2017), £87,365
Tom Bennett, BBSRC (Oct 2017), £523,679
Neil Ranson, Darren Tomlinson, BBSRC (Oct 2017), £494,318
Nikita Gamper, BBSRC (Oct 2017), £490,426
Amanda Bretman and colleagues from UEA, NERC (Oct 2017), £430,886
Juan Fontana, Rosetrees Trust consumables grant (Oct 2017), £22,500
Helen Miller, DSM Nutritional Products AG (Sep 2017), £69,988
Neil Ranson, Juan Fontana, Mark Harris, Michelle Peckham, Ralf Richter, Peter Stockley, Patricija Van Oosten-Hawle and colleagues in Engineering, FMH and MAPS, Wellcome Trust Equipment Call (Sep 2017), £418,000
Jamie Johnston, Physiological Society (Sep 2017), £10,000
Frank Sobott, Adrian Goldman, Mark Harris, Andrew Macdonald, Stephen Muench, Sheena Radford and colleagues in FMH and MAPS, Wellcome Trust Equipment Call (Aug 2017), £415,000
Ralf Richter, David Brockwell, Eric Hewitt, Jessica Kwok, Emanuele Paci and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £600,000
Eric Blair, Adrian Whitehouse, Nicola Stonehouse, Alison Baker, Richard Bayliss, Joan Boyes, Ryan Seipke, Sally Boxall and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £376,000
Stefan Kepinski, Yoselin Benitez-Alfonso, Tom Bennett, Michelle Peckham, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £331,000
Roman Tuma, Lars Jeuken, Paul Millner, Sheena Radford, Peter Stockley and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £222,000
Vas Ponnambalam, Darren Tomlinson, Stephen Wheatcroft, BHF (May 2017), £107,878
Graham Askew in collaboration with Bangor University, BBSRC (Mar 2017), £477,383
Stephen Muench, BBSRC (Mar 2017), £132,945
Nic Stonehouse, MRC (Mar 2017), £906,341
Bill Kunin, Steve Sait, BBSRC (Mar 2017), £602,831
Adrian Goldman, EU (Mar 2017), £546,576
Sheena Radford, Wellcome Trust (Mar 2017), £1,836,482
Beatrice Filippi, Royal Society (Mar 2017), £15,000
Tom Bennett, Royal Society (Mar 2017), £15,000
Jamie Johnston, Royal Society (Mar 2017), £15,000
Ryan Seipke, BBSRC (Feb 2017), £52,116
Mary O'Connell, BBSRC (Feb 2017), £46,986
Hannah Dugdale, NERC (Feb 2017), £504,138
Anastasia Zhuravleva, EPSRC (Jan 2017), £100,792