Mussel inspectors make first catch of the year

Last year about 30,000 boats and watercraft were inspected at Alberta’s borders

Dogs and inspectors are out in full force again this year looking for invasive mussels hitching rides on boats.  |  Alberta Environment and Parks/Cindy Sawchuk photo

Alta. resumes efforts to keep invasive mussels out of province’s waterways, where they can damage irrigation equipment

A boat heading for Alberta’s Ghost Reservoir May 6, en route from Lake Winnipeg, carried nasty cargo.

Invasive mussels were stuck to its hull, the very type of destructive pest that Alberta is keen to avoid and has taken steps to intercept.

Boat inspectors at the Dunmore station east of Medicine Hat spotted the mussels and put the boat into quarantine until it could be decontaminated.

It was an auspicious beginning to the province’s boat inspection program, which ramped up on the May long weekend, said Cindy Sawchuk of Alberta Environment and Parks.

“That was a really good find because it actually happened after dark,” she said.

“That’s the station that’s our hottest for mussel-fouled boats.”

The Dunmore station is the only one open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and discovery of this particular boat that crossed the provincial border proved the value of round the clock inspection, said Sawchuk.

The international border at Coutts, Alta., is open 20 hours a day to catch boats coming north. There are also inspection stations at Carway and Del Bonita and another 11 at various major points of entry into the province.

Sawchuk said a partnership with Canadian Border Services ensures any watercraft that enters Canada when inspection stations are not operating is made known to the department.

Last year about 30,000 boats and watercraft were inspected at Alberta’s various borders, and 19 were found to be carrying invasive mussels.

The inspection program includes the use of trained mussel-sniffing dogs. There are three working in the province, said Sawchuk. Two of the three, Hilo and Suess, met with the co-operative owner of the fouled boat earlier this month and were able to practise their sniffing skills on the craft.

Zebra and quagga mussels can clog water systems and destroy ecosystems, causing damage, expense and loss of recreational opportunities. They are a particular concern for Alberta’s irrigation sector because they could block pipelines, affect infrastructure and drastically reduce system efficiency.

A 2013 assessment by Alberta Environment estimated that control costs for invasive mussels could be $75.5 million annually.

A study commissioned by the Eastern Irrigation District, released earlier this year, flagged the vulnerability of the water system if mussels were to invade.

“Twenty-two reservoirs that supply irrigation water were identified as high risk to invasive mussels due to the water chemistry, as well as the high amount of boating activity,” said the report from Paterson Earth and Water Consulting Ltd.

“The detrimental effects of mussels are of particular concern for buried water supply pipelines and on-farm irrigation systems. Invasive mussel establishment in Alberta would also negatively affect recreational opportunities and the aquatic environment. As seen in other jurisdictions, the effects of invasive mussels are far reaching environmentally, socially and economically.”

The report also said that under current prevention methods, mussels are likely to appear in irrigation reservoirs, most likely introduced by recreational boats.

“The discovery of dreissenid (zebra and quagga) mussels in water bodies that are relatively close to southern Alberta’s borders, combined with the high volume of boat and watercraft traffic into Alberta from mussel-infested areas in Canada and the United States, makes it likely that dreissenid mussels will be introduced into Alberta irrigation water supply reservoirs in the future,” said the Paterson report.

There are no registered control options for the mussels, and research is ongoing. Liquid potash appears to be the most promising option to date.

Margo Jarvis Redelback, executive director of the Alberta Irrigation Projects Association, said 12 of the 22 reservoirs in the irrigation districts will be sampled this summer for mussel larvae, called villagers, to monitor for invasion. Alberta Environment and Alberta Agriculture will handle monitoring of the other 10, she said.

“It is something that we can’t be complacent on,” said Jarvis Redelback.

“It’s still timely to make sure everybody knows what the danger is and what’s being done to prevent or determine if something is infested so that there can be a rapid response put in place to try and minimize the danger and the damage.”

Sawchuk said some travelers consider a stop at the inspection station to be an inconvenience, but in general they are co-operative once they understand the reasons behind it.

About 70 inspectors were deployed last week, many of them returnees from last year’s inspections, and their jobs standing on pavement in the hot sun are not easy, she added.

Boats found to be carrying invasive mussels are decontaminated at no expense to the owner. If that can’t be done immediately, the owner retains the craft but can’t put it into any waters until decontamination is done by the department’s trained professionals, Sawchuk said.

New this year is a passport program for boaters who travel within Alberta and British Columbia. They will still have to stop at inspection stations, but those who have committed to cleaning, draining and drying their boats between stops in those two provinces will be expedited.

Failure to stop at an inspection station if carrying or towing watercraft in Alberta can result in fines up to $100,000 and up to 12 months in jail.

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