The provincial government and irrigation districts are ramping up their efforts to keep invasive quagga and zebra mussels out of Alberta.
Along with more watercraft inspections, the province is also stepping up enforcement — and boaters who fail to stop at an inspection station face a fine of up to $100,000 or 12 months in prison.
As well, a new piece of legislation known as “Pull the Plug” was put in place this year. By law, all watercraft transported on Alberta roadways must have any plugs within the waterline pulled. Inspectors are spreading the word at inspection stations, with more than 16,000 people personally informed so far.
“It’s important that motorists pull the plug when they’re at the site, at the source, so all that water drains out and it’s not the source of introduction when they get to the next water body,” said Cindy Sawchuk, aquatic and invasive species inspections and conservation K-9 lead with Alberta Environment and Parks.
K-9 refers to the dogs trained to sniff out mussels. The dogs are deployed at provincial watercraft inspection stations, which operate 16 hours per day seven days a week during the boating season along the province’s southern and eastern borders. If a watercraft is contaminated with mussels, the vessel will be hot water sterilized (at no expense to the boat owner).
Twelve mussel-fouled boats had been found as of mid-September. But so far, all water samples analyzed for invasive mussels through Alberta’s monitoring network have come back negative.
“We can assure Albertans that we are following the most up-to-date science, technology, and understanding of this issue,” said Sawchuk.
And it’s not just powerboats and sailing vessels that are inspected. All watercraft — including canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards — must stop at inspection stations.
“A lot of the time boaters with kayaks and canoes tend to feel that this doesn’t apply to them, and that they didn’t need to stop at the watercraft inspection station,” Sawchuk said.
But while the inspection program has been successful, there is no way to physically inspect every watercraft coming into the province, she added.
“The only way we will effectively eliminate this risk is if every boater does their share and does their part to keep their boat clean, and to make sure they’re not transporting any water or any mussels into the province. That’s why we’ve preached the message of ‘clean, drain, dry’ every time you leave a water body.”
The government deserves high marks for its efforts, said the executive director of the Alberta Irrigation Projects Association.
“I think our government should be patted on the back for jumping out and being a leader in Western Canada,” said Ron McMullin. “It’s caught the vision of what needed to be done and has gone about putting people and measures in place.”
St. Mary’s Irrigation District has taken additional measures. A lot of boaters fish for walleye in its reservoirs and so the district has also been screening watercraft, restricting access outside of official boat launches, and educating boat owners.
That includes warning that if mussels ever made their way into the irrigation district, it would mean the end of boating on its reservoirs.
“If we found mussels in our lake and said, ‘Oh well, it’s too late, continue on boating,’ it would be completely irresponsible of us,” said Terrence Lazarus, general manager of St. Mary’s Irrigation District.
But Lazarus also worries about “curve balls” that could see mussels invade Alberta waterways.
“Someone sent me a picture of a float plane,” he said. “Float planes can go very quickly from one place to another. So that’s a concern of mine.”
He is now working with Navigation Canada to come up with a plan to address this.
Federal parks officials are also increasing protection measures. Access to Lake Minnewanka in Banff now requires a certificate of inspection from any watercraft that has been outside of Alberta and B.C.
With zebra mussels now spreading through Lake Winnipeg (they were first discovered there in 2013), the threat is getting closer and McMullin would like to see more initiatives in place.
“We would like to see Saskatchewan invest more money and help be a shield in the conglomerate of western provinces and states that are trying to keep the northwest area clear of mussels,” he said.
Alberta Agriculture is also working with the irrigation districts to develop protocols to eradicate them in the case that they find their way into Alberta’s water. They are investigating potash as a way to treat water pipelines and irrigation systems without harming crops or fish.
“We can’t put our heads in the sand and say we’ll never get them,” McMullin said. “Potash is a fertilizer, but it also kills mussels, so they’re developing the protocols for treating pipelines under a special research permit.”