Alarm bells ringing in Alberta as invasive mussels move west

The arrival of the devastating invaders in Manitoba has led to mandatory inspections here

Alberta introduced tough new legislation last month requiring mandatory boat inspections — a ramping up of the effort to keep zebra and quagga mussels out of the province.

But officials admit that what’s really needed is public buy-in — and a little luck — to keep these devastating waterway invaders at bay.

“If we ‘miss the boat,’ so to speak and have an infestation, we estimate that these mussels would cost Albertans about $75 million every year,” said Kate Wilson, an aquatic invasive species program specialist with Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development.

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“These mussels pose threats to everything from hydropower facilities and waste water plants to irrigation systems and native fisheries, to tourism and property values. Prevention is definitely our best management option.”

Zebra and quagga mussels are thumbnail-sized (or smaller) freshwater species native to the Black Sea region. Adaptable, incredibly prolific, and tiny enough in larval stages to spread through even small waterworks such as irrigation pipes, these invasive species are virtually unstoppable once they gain access to a new body of water.

Unlike native mussels that live on lake bottoms, adult zebra and quagga mussels attach to substrates, clogging pipes and waterways, smothering spawning grounds, and costing huge dollars as they spread.

Getting closer

One female can produce up to a million eggs every year. Although they arrived in North America less than 30 years ago and only moved west of the Mississippi in 2007, they’re now in most U.S. river systems. Nevada’s Lake Mead now has more than 10 trillion mussels since they arrived in 2007.

While zebra mussels have been present in Ontario for some time, their arrival in Manitoba’s Lake Winnipeg in 2013 set alarm bells ringing in this province.

“This detection in Lake Winnipeg really changes the game,” said Wilson. “The highest-priority borders for us right now are the eastern and southern border.”

That’s why it will now be mandatory for anyone transporting a boat to stop for inspection at stations located along Alberta’s major highways. The maximum fine for not stopping is a whopping $100,000.

The number of inspection stations will grow from four last year to between 10 and 14 this year. And after a successful trial using a mussel sniffer dog team out of Montana last year, Alberta is readying four of its own sniffer dog and handler teams to join the battle.

But the task is challenging as zebra and quagga mussels are spectacular hitchhikers. Their microscopic larvae can easily hitch a ride in the standing water often found in the bilge, ballast or live well areas of boats. And larvae and adult mussels can survive as long as 30 days out of water. So a single boat with just a couple of inches of standing water or an unnoticed adult mussel tagalong could precipitate a devastating invasion.

Huge threat

The threat to Alberta’s irrigation districts — which has more than 50 water reservoirs and 8,000 kilometres of canals and buried irrigation pipeline — is huge. The Alberta Irrigation Projects Association is so concerned it’s helping to fund the sniffer dogs teams.

“The larval stage of these mussels can go through anything, and the impact would be very fast,” said Wilson. “An infestation of mussels would probably require the replacement, and likely a regular replacement, of a lot of the irrigation system water intakes, pipes, and pivots. The direct cost to farmers and consumers could be devastating.”

The mandatory inspection is just one prong of the province’s prevention strategy. There’s also a Clean, Drain, Dry Your Boat campaign; a 24/7 reporting and information hotline (1-855-336 BOAT); and ongoing monitoring of water bodies. A response plan is also being developed and further policy and legislative changes are being considered.

But the key is public support and vigilance, said Wilson.

“We’re not talking about a hypothetical risk,” she said. “Last year, we inspected over 3,700 watercraft of which two were fouled with mussels. And we found an additional three boats carrying mussels outside of the inspection station season. The year before, seven fouled boats were intercepted.”

Because this is the first year of mandatory inspections, the focus will be on education, said Wilson.

“In other areas that have implemented mandatory inspections, boaters tend to be sold on the program by the second year because inspections tend to be relatively quick, they ultimately protect our resources, and stopping to ensure you’re not inadvertently transporting invasive species is the right thing to do.”

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