If you are a boat owner in Alberta you have a role to play in protecting our lakes and rivers, as well as our water infrastructure, from infestation by zebra or quagga mussels.

Zebra and quagga mussels attach to any hard surface and grow like a carpet. They colonize dams and irrigation systems and are a significant physical nuisance for infrastructure. We have over seven thousand kilometers of irrigation canals and pipe in Alberta, all of which could be damaged by an infestation of zebra mussels.

Quagga mussels on the other hand can also attach to soft surfaces and therefore pose a threat to an even wider set of environments and infrastructure. What’s more, the quagga mussels can survive and reproduce at very low temperatures, which means it will take more than our Alberta winters to scare them away.

Mussels from inspected boat

Mussels from inspected boat

Originating in Europe, zebra and quagga mussels have travelled to North America as stowaways on the ballast and hulls of trading vessels. These invasive mussels infest lakes as far west as Nevada and California in the United States, and were recently discovered in Lake Winnipeg in Canada.

In 2013 representatives from Montana’s and Idaho’s invasive species surveillance programs informed Alberta that mussel infested boats were coming in to the province. Working quickly, the Ministry for the Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (now Alberta Environment and Parks) established its aquatic invasive species program and updated legislation making it mandatory that any boats coming in to Alberta had to be inspected for zebra and quagga mussels. A lake monitoring program for invasive mussels was also established and is now the responsibility of Environmental Monitoring and Science (formerly AEMERA). In addition, EMSD supports the Province’s boat inspection program by providing expertise in the identification of aquatic organisms found on watercraft.

Aquatic invasive species monitoring training

Aquatic invasive species monitoring training

EMSD’s Dr. Ron Zurawell heads up the lake monitoring portion of Alberta’s invasive aquatic species program, which just wrapped up its third year. Dr. Zurawell reports that there have been no signs of the nuisance mussels in our lakes yet. They are, however, coming in to the province attached to boats. “Quagga mussels have made their way into lakes in the western states – Nevada and California – that are big destinations for snow-birds,” said Dr. Zurawell, referring to Canadians who winter in the southern United States. “If a boat stays in a mussel-infested lake for 3-5 days, you’re considered high risk when you re-enter Alberta.”

This past summer, Alberta’s aquatic invasive species program employed over 40 inspectors at boat inspection locations around the province. The inspection sites are housed at various commercial vehicle inspection stations along the critical corridors leading into the province from the high-risk areas of Montana, Saskatchewan and British Columbia. Signs along the route remind boaters that inspections are required by law when re-entering the province. Boat inspection stations are open May through October from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

In addition to inspection stations, a crew of roving inspectors works out of Red Deer and visit different recreational boat launches every weekend to talk with boaters about the new law and to ensure compliance. New signage at all recreational launches around the province also provide a reminder to boaters.

The boat inspections have proved critical to Alberta’s prevention strategy. “We had 6 boats with mussels on them the first year,” says Dr. Zurawell, and with nearly 21,000 inspections being conducted this past season, 11 boats were confirmed to harbor invasive mussels and another 6 had marine mussels attached. Boats with harboring mussels are quarantined and given a high-temperature, high-pressure wash before being released to their owners. Currently, the government of Alberta covers the cost of the wash.

Boat infested with mussels

Boat infested with mussels

Although mussels are coming in to the province on boats, there have been no signs of zebra or quagga mussels in Alberta lakes. This past year the invasive species monitoring network monitored 77 lakes and reservoirs around Alberta, with sample collection consisting of filtering up to 1000 litres of water to inspect for signs of mussels.

Just because we have not found mussels doesn’t necessarily mean we have no aquatic invasive species. “We have Prussian carp in the province now,” says Zurawell, “and flowering rush.” Like the mussels, invasive plants can come in to the province on boats, but in many cases they are planted in home water gardens and ornamental ponds. Similarly, people who have kept Prussian carp as pets or pond animals in the summer release them in to local lakes and rivers. The trouble is that invasive species compete with – and begin to replace – the native species. This process can affect sport fisheries and the overall health of our waterways.

Now that the boat inspection and lake monitoring are established, Dr. Zurawell’s priorities for the invasive aquatic species program are to support the creation of emergency response protocols as well as mitigation and control strategies.

Zurawell encourages people to report sightings of invasive species. “If you’re driving down the highway and you see a boat with mussels on it, you can call the hotline” he says.

Economists estimate that Ontario spends 75 million dollars annually dealing with the zebra mussel infestation in its lakes. Preventing an infestation in Alberta is the smart thing to do.

For more information visit:http://mywildalberta.com/fishing/safety-procedures/aquatic-invasive-species.aspx. To report a boat suspected of harboring invasive species, please call toll free 1-855-336-2628 (BOAT).

UPDATE (2017/06/02): We have hired 60 boat inspection staff this season and have expanded the boat inspection stations to 11 fixed locations and two roving crews in response to the infestation of a Montana reservoir by invasive mussels. This summer we will monitor about 73 lakes and reservoirs across the province and in addition 22 irrigation canals will also be monitored by Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.