BROWNING, Mont./CARDSTON, Alta. — Invasive mussels no larger than a thumbnail now cost the United States $3 billion a year in infrastructure damage and lost recreational resources.
Experts estimate an invasion of those same mussels in Alberta would cost $75 million a year.
That is a big incentive to keep zebra and quagga mussels from invading the few provinces and U.S. states that remain free of them. It’s also why there is an international effort to keep the mollusks out through mandatory boat inspection and constant vigilance.
Standing in a wide spot on the highway between Browning, Montana, and Glacier National Park, Ky Zimmerman and Tobias, a Labrador retriever, inspect all watercraft in or towed behind passing vehicles.
Montana has a mandatory watercraft inspection system, similar to what was recently implemented in Alberta.
Last year, this station checked more than 5,000 boats. Four mussel-fouled craft were found, all bound for the mussel-free waters of the Flathead region.
“These mussels are affecting hydropower plants, electric facilities, municipal water treatment, but they’re also causing the shut down of a lot of local river and lake access sites where these mussels are present,” Zimmerman told the transboundary water and weeds tour Aug. 9.
“They’re really disrupting native wildlife and of course they’re wrecking our fishing incentives because they’re very aggressive filter feeders. They’re actually consuming all of the food resources that are available for our native fish species.”
On the Alberta side, provincial aquatic invasive species specialist Kate Wilson said Montana’s fight against the invasive mussels served as a pattern for the provincial program, which began in 2014.
Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan are so far free of the invasive mussels, as are Montana, Washington, Wyoming and Idaho.
“We are the last remaining drainage that has no zebra or quagga mussels,” said Wilson. “Really, in the West here, we have one shot to really be successful. If we miss the boat, so to speak, we are really in a world of hurt. We are just as much at risk as any of those western states below us.”
The invasive mollusks spread to Lake Winnipeg in 2014, raising the threat of invasion via Alberta’s eastern front. Saskatchewan has no inspection measures in place so most of Alberta’s stations are along the Saskatchewan border.
Alberta inspection stations checked 21,500 boats and watercraft last year and found 11 that were carrying mussels, all of them from Ontario and Manitoba.
The invasive mussels were first discovered in North America around 1989 and are thought to have arrived in the ballast of large ocean-going cargo ships.
Since then, they have steadily spread eastward. The mussels multiply rapidly, adhere to almost anything and clog vessels, pipes and infrastructure.
They have no natural predators in North America and can live outside water for up to 30 days.
“How far could you drive in a month with your boat? You could drive across the country and back, and stop at all those infested waterways on the way, so that’s really scary,” said Wilson.
Any mussel that is attached to a boat is the bad kind, she added, because native mussels cannot adhere. Even dead zebra and quagga mussels must be reported.
“We don’t want someone launching their boat with dead mussels either, because guess what? They’re going to fall off. Someone’s going to find them. They’re going to report them. We’re going to have to institute a really expensive, scary response that was never necessary because that boat should have been clean before it launched.”
Alberta now has three dogs trained to sniff out mussels. They are stationed in places considered at highest risk of mussel transport.
Zimmerman said Montana’s dogs take about a minute to identify the invaders.
Two weeks ago, Tobias was called in to examine a boat that had visited a watershed known to harbour invasive mussels.
“We ran Tobias around it and he successfully alerted to zebra and quagga mussels that were inside the live well,” Zimmerman said.
“That boat was actually headed towards a lake … just south of Glacier National Park.”
As in Alberta, there are no fees for the inspection or disinfection if mussels are found.
“We don’t want folks to deliberately avoid our decontamination. We advertise, ‘hey, if you’ve got mussels on your boat, you get a free boat wash.’ ”
Disinfection in-volves hot water and pressure washing.
Chemicals are not effective against mussels, which can lock up tightly. They could also damage watercraft.
“We don’t want to be liable for that,” said Zimmerman.
He praised the co-operation be-tween American and Canadian agencies aimed at keeping the mussels at bay.
So did Wilson.
However, she noted the Alberta program does not have dedicated government funding. Irrigation districts and municipalities, as well as the province, have funded the program to date.