Action urged now to keep out mussels

The campaign has been launched to keep invasive zebra and quagga mussels out of prairie waters and it begins with public awareness campaigns and boat inspection.

Phase 1 involves the posting of signs and posters, roadside inspection at key U.S. border and B.C. border entry points and a hotline at 1-855-336-BOAT through which the public can make inquiries or report suspected mussel sightings.

The first phase also involves monitoring in 25 of Alberta’s 55 reservoirs.

Those at a June 6 irrigation technical conference in Lethbridge saw a map of mussel infestation in North America, in which the Canadian Prairies stand out starkly as a zebra and quagga mussel-free zone.

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“The economics, the environmental issues are huge when these mussels can come in and change the ecology of a whole water body in a few years,” said Alberta Irrigation Projects Association executive director Ron McMullin.

“In eight years, it can go from an infestation to where you’ve wiped out a whole fishery.”

Mussel infestation has major implications for lakes, rivers and reservoirs from an ecological and recreational standpoint, but is also a major threat to the irrigation system.

“We need to do something. We don’t need to do it two years from now. We need to do it now,” McMullin said. “Prevention is so much easier than control. Once they’re here, you don’t put your hands up in the air, but then, well, they’re here.”

The two types of mussels, which are native to Eurasia, invaded North America through the Great Lakes, likely on ocean liners. From there, they spread down the eastern seaboard and then made the leap west.

Now they can be found in California’s Coachella Valley, in Lake Mead and have made their way northward into Utah. Idaho and Montana have implemented inspection and control measures to stop the spread.

The mussels multiply rapidly, building upon each other, and clog pipes, pumps, docks and virtually all submerged surfaces if left un-checked. McMullin said they cost the U.S. about $5 billion per year in damage, repair and control.

However, effective controls are few. Some chemicals work but those come at a financial and ecological cost.

“If the zebra mussels, quagga mussels get into our system, the risk is that it can impact our ability to convey water, it can coat the inside of our pipelines and potentially clog them off,” said Chris Gallagher of the St. Mary River Irrigation District.

Left alone, the mussels can block an irrigation pipe within three months, he said.

Gallagher acknowledged it will be difficult to keep Alberta and the Prairies free of the pests but public awareness will be key.

“It may be a matter of when rather than if, because its so prolific, and we can only control so much. That’s where the education part comes in.”

Adult zebra and quagga mussels are about the size of a thumbnail. Females can lay up to one million eggs per year and the larvae, known as veligers, are impossible to see and can easily travel in bilge water.

Andrea Kalischuk, head of the water quality branch for Alberta Resources Development, said monitors are available to irrigation districts and should be checked at least twice a month.

“The early response becomes critical. The quicker we know, the quicker we can come to action,” said Kalischuk, noting there is a response team in place.

“If (the mussels) do come, they will be difficult to eradicate.”

She said there is no legislation allowing inspection teams to detain boats and make sure they are mussel free. Public cooperation will be required.

McMullin said that’s one reason a political champion is needed in Alberta to raise the issue and push for effective prevention measures. Funding is needed for decontamination facilities at the borders, and that amount will be far less than control measures if the mussels invade prairie waters.

That shouldn’t involve an onerous process for people bringing boats to Alberta from the U.S. or B.C., he added.

Gallagher said travellers with boats are supportive when the risk of mussel hitchhikers is explained.

“That’s one thing we’re finding, is that once the boaters are aware of the problem, they are quite cooperative. They don’t want to be part of the problem. It impacts their boating and fishing areas.”

Mussels have already been found on some boats entering Alberta and have been dealt with. They can live for a month outside water, which helps prevent spread in Canada’s off-season for boating.

There is a greater risk in summer when more people are travelling with boats.

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