Spread of invasive species could cost Alberta millions

Mussels were featured at the Lacombe Memorial Centre on Wednesday.

Mussels were featured at the Lacombe Memorial Centre on Wednesday.

But the aquatic creatures proved to be a rather distasteful topic during the Alberta Invasive Species Council’s annual conference.

Kate Wilson, the aquatic invasive species program co-ordinator with Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, described the spread of zebra and quagga mussels across North America and the threat they pose to Alberta lakes.

Not only do they have “massive ecological impacts across the entire food chain once established,” her department has estimated that invasive mussels could cost this province $75 million a year if allowed to spread unchecked.

Much of this would relate to the expense of removing the clinging creatures from equipment like water pipes and hydropower and water treatment infrastructure.

“We have to focus on prevention,” said Wilson, explaining that no effective controls currently exist.

First discovered in the Great Lakes in the late 1980s, zebra mussels are believed to have crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the ballast water of cargo ships.

Since then, they’ve spread westward, and have now infested the Colorado River system, said Wilson.

“Just in October, Lake Winnipeg detected zebra mussels,” she said, adding that lakes in Saskatchewan and Alberta lakes are now at high risk.

“The primary way that things move from one water body to another is by boat,” said Wilson, pointing out that watercraft being transported by trailer are the biggest threat.

But, she added, mussels can also hitch rides in fishing gear, float planes, water bombers, pump trucks and other pumping equipment.

Fortunately, said Wilson, the northwestern states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming perform mandatory inspections of trailered boats, providing a southern buffer for Alberta.

Last year, seven infested boats en route to Canada were intercepted, with one of these destined for Sylvan Lake, another bound for Gull Lake and two headed to Wabamun Lake.

Many boats slip through the screening, however. And the Manitoba discovery raises new concerns about transmission from the east.

“It’s the first Prairie province to have an infestation, and we have no idea about road traffic that travels west form the eastern provinces.”

The shelled pests can survive for up to a month out of water, are adaptable to cold temperatures, and thrive in water with calcium levels that are common in Alberta.

“Over half of the 500 or so lakes that we looked at were classified as a high risk.”

Quagga mussels are particularly worrisome, said Wilson.

“Think of the quagga as the evil, more adaptable cousin; so deeper water, colder water, and it can stick to substrates like tennis shoes.”

In fact, attachment to any surface is a good indicator that a mussel is of the unwelcome variety.

“All over North America, no native mussels attach.”

Anyone seeing evidence of invasive mussels is urged to call a hotline at 1-855-336-BOAT. And boat owners are encouraged to “clean, drain and dry” their vessels when moving from one lake or river to another.

“I believe this issue is 90 per cent solvable through, not just education but behaviour change,” said Wilson.

In addition to zebra and quagga mussels, the top aquatic threats for Alberta are Eurasian water milfoil, didymo or rock snot algae, flowering rush, New Zealand mud snails, rusty crayfish, spiny water fleas, jumping silver carp, northern snakeheads and round gobies, said Wilson.

She pointed out that invasive species can be introduced through such innocent actions as dumping out aquariums or allowing organisms to escape from water gardens and aquaculture operations.

Wilson was among a number of speakers who presented at the Alberta Invasive Species Council gathering in Lacombe. A registered not-for-profit society, the council works to raise public awareness about the impact of invasive species on the environment, economy and society, and minimize the threat. It previously operated as the Alberta Invasive Plants Council.

Additional information about the Edmonton-based organization can be found online at www.abinvasives.ca.

hrichards@bprda.wpengine.com

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