Ember Heidt

Ember Heidt

Funding to fight invasive mussels

Columbia Basin Trust has pitched in to provide mobile decontamination units aimed at stopping mussels from entering BC waterways.

  • Jul. 13, 2015 8:00 a.m.

Trevor Crawley

The Columbia Basin Trust has pitched in to provide three mobile decontamination units aimed at stopping invasive mussels from entering British Columbia waterways.

Totalling a $360,000 investment, with financial contributions from the Columbia Power Corporation and FortisBC, the additional units that will be dedicated  to stopping and ensuring boats are free of mussels.

Teams will be based in Cranbrook, Valemount, and Nelson to target entry points from Alberta and the U.S.

The three new units will be dedicated to serving the Columbia Basin region, complementing three additional units that are currently in use around the rest of the province.

The objective of the decontamination units are to prevent and mitigate the spread of Quagga and Zebra Mussels, which are very harmful to waterways and ecosystems. The issue is being tackled by a partnerships involving the Ministry of Environment’s Invasive Mussel Defence Program, the Columbia Power Corporation, FortisBC and local invasive species councils, including the East Kootenay Invasive Plant Council, Central Kootenay Invasive Species Society, Columbia Shuswap Invasive Species Society and the Northwest Invasive Plant Council.

A mobile decontamination unit was on display out at Moyie Lake as the announcement was made last Friday with local government officials and program stakeholders in attendance.

Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett recalled how negatively invasive mussels affected a river on some recreational property his family owned in Ontario while growing up and that while the issue may not necessarily be a hot-button one, it’s still important.

“Invasive Mussels pose a threat to more than just ecosystems, but to drinking water facilities, hydro stations, agricultural irrigation and more,” Bennett said. “This funding boost from the Columbia Basin Trust, Columbia Power Corporation and FortisBC allows the Province to further strengthen efforts to stop Zebra and Quagga mussels from entering B.C.”

Ember Heidt, an inspector with the Invasive Mussel Defence Program, used the mobile decontamination unit to demonstrate what the process looks like.

When the units are set up, it is mandatory for all boats—those towed on trailers, including canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddle boards—to go through the mandatory inspection process.

Failure to comply to the inspection process can result in some hefty fines, and Conservation Officers have the authority under the both the Wildlife Act and the Motor Vehicle Act to chase down and ticket non-compliant drivers and operators.

Depending on conversations with the watercraft owner, the inspection can take two minutes or a half hour.

The decontamination system itself is an environmentally friendly process that simply involves spraying the watercraft with high-pressure, high-temperature water. The boat trailer is parked on mats that collect the excess water and filters it for any mussels that come off the hull, meaning that the water can be reused for future decontaminations. Outboard motors are also flushed with high-temperature water, as the high heat kills any mussels.

Kaylish Fraser, the aquatic invasive species program coordinator of the Central Invasive Species Society, notes that invasive mussels are native to the Eurasia region and likely came to North America in the 1980s due to ballast water from ships in the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes.

From there, it’s created a problem that spans waterways across North America.

“The number one thing that makes them exceptionally destructive, compared to any native mussels in North America, is that they have the ability to colonize on any substrate—any surface,” Fraser said. “So all native mussels in North America are only free-floating, so these Zebra and Quagga mussels have little threads that allow them to attach to any hard surface.

“That, combined with their really high reproductive rate—the female can lay up to 1 million eggs—for spawning events, and she can spawn multiple times a year. So if you have mussels colonized on a hard surface and they’re laying a million eggs—most of which may not survive but you still have a high survival rate—so then you can visualize any kind of surface, this buildup of mussels just gets bigger and bigger, up to 15 centimetres thick of a layer.”

The mussels are considered a bioengineer, altering the local ecosystems by cleaning out the water column of algae, phytoplankton, which can reverberate up the food chain.

“You end up seeing fish populations crashing, and other important species start to crash, so it ends up changing the entire food web and food chain,” Fraser added.

In addition to the ecological damage, the mussels can also interfere with hydroelectric dam operations, by colonizing pipes and trash racks, which come at an extreme cost to clean.

There are concurrent programs running south of the border in Washington, Idaho and Montana, while Alberta also has mandatory inspection programs. To date, there haven’t been any Zebra or Quagga mussels found in B.C. waterway, and the province is hoping to ensure in stays that way.