Invasive Mussels Closing in on Alberta

Editor's Note: As of November 23, 2016, veligers have been found in the Milk River system below Fresno in addition to the mussels found earlier this month in Montana reservoirs (Tiber and Canyon Ferry). This has caused the National Park Service accross the border to close all waters in Glacier National Park to watercraft until further notice. Adult mussels have not been confirmed in any location, but further investigation is still underway.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of mussels, steamed in a delicious garlic cream sauce served with crispy fries – mmm… Moules Frites! But, there is a different type of mussels (not for eating!) that aren’t winning any awards in my books – Zebra and Quagga Mussels. These species are not indigenous to Alberta and are highly invasive. If they enter into our system, consequences can be drastic in terms of negative impacts to fish habitat and entire ecosystems as well as high costs to repairing the damage they cause to boating equipment and water infrastructure. Alberta estimates that damages could be upwards of $75 million per year if the mussels make their way into our lakes and rivers.

How did they get here? It has been determined that these invasive species actually arrived on ships from Europe. Large cargo ships would bring them over in the ballast water used to balance the ship. This ballast water however, contains more than just water, often housing microbes, algae, aquatic plant and animals. Once the boats arrive to their new destination, the water they picked up in Europe is now dumped out into the waters of their end destination. Since their first known introduction into the Great Lakes in Canada and the U.S. in the 1980s, they are now found in Ontario, Quebec and most recently Winnipeg and at least 24 U.S. States have had confirmed presence of mussels. These mussels are not yet found in any waterbodies in Alberta, however just last week, Montana Fish and Wildlife and Parks reported mussel larvae (veligers) found in one reservoir in Montana and suspect in a second. Since no adult mussels have been found, Montana is hoping to contain the situation over the winter while the waters are cooler and the mussels are less likely to reproduce.

Lake Winnpeg has not been so lucky. Since first detecting mussels in October 2013 the south end of the Lake is highly infested with hundreds of thousands of mussels. Originally Manitoba had contained the mussels and did successfully kill off the ones they knew about by adding potash to the water in May 2014. However the Red River that flows into the lake is also infested and so the future looks difficult. Between spring and summer 2016 mussel numbers jumped 16X, showing just how invasive and prolific these mussels are.

But what does this mean for Alberta? Well, if you look at the map below, you can see that the mussels are making their way from East to West, and have certainly done a fair bit of traveling in the United States. Detection of the veligers in Montana is the closest they have come geographically to Alberta. To protect against their infestation, Alberta Environment and Parks have been monitoring 60 high priority water bodies in the province with the awareness and education program – Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers. The program is the largest watercraft inspection program in Canada, with over 19,000 inspections in 2016, and also employs some pretty cute, hairy, slobbery employees – sniffer dogs Hilo, Diesel and Seuss.

Map of Zebra and Quagga Mussels found in Canada and the United States.  Current as of July 8, 2016.  Taken from USGS Zebra and Quagga Mussel – Non-Indigenous Aquatic Species webpage:    

Map of Zebra and Quagga Mussels found in Canada and the United States.  Current as of July 8, 2016.  Taken from USGS Zebra and Quagga Mussel – Non-Indigenous Aquatic Species webpage: 

Last week, the OWC was pleased to have Hilo and his handler Cindy Sawchuk, Invasive Species Conservation Lead with Alberta Environment and Parks, come down to the office and give us a real-life show of how these amazing dogs sniff out mussel intruders. Since our visit, Hilo and Cindy have made their way south of the border at Montana's request, as part of the early detection and rapid response plan. The pair will be sniffing out the shores of the reservoirs in order to help determine if adult mussels are present. Until adult mussels are found, Montana can remain mussel-free by containing and removing the veligers found.

Hilo and Cindy visiting the OWC

Hilo and Cindy visiting the OWC

The Oldman Watershed Council has supported the Stop Aquatic Hichhikers program through the OWC’s Headwaters Action Plan (HAP). As an integral part of the HAP, the Headwaters Action Team (HAT), a multi-stakeholder group representing those with interests in the headwaters of the Oldman, have further pushed to have inspections running throughout the year and into the night. Expanding the program can further reduce the potential of having infected watercrafts enter into Alberta. In addition to the inspections, the Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers program is also focused on the message to boaters of Clean, Drain, Dry. Relaying this message can help ensure that watercrafts are cleaned when they exit a waterbody and that any invasive species are removed before entering a new waterbody.

How can you help? Be aware – If you are a boater, stop at the inspection sites. If you know boaters, make sure they know about the Stop Aquatic Hitchhikers program and the Clean, Drain, Dry message. The Oldman Watershed Council continues to support efforts to keep invasive mussels out of our watershed. Please help us by donating, volunteering, promoting the message and displaying the right thing to do!

Thanks for the visit, Hilo!    Larin Guenther                        Planning Manager

Thanks for the visit, Hilo!

 Larin Guenther                        Planning Manager

Other Resources:

Alberta Parks Aquatic Invasive Species 

Webinar: A Treatment Method to Protect Alberta's Irrigation Pipelines from Invasive Dreissenid sp. MusselsHosted by the Canadian Committee on Irrigation and Drainage (CANCID). Presented by Brad Calder, Research Specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.
November 23, 2016 starting at 12:30pm (mountain time). 
Click here for more information and a link to register. There is no cost for this Webinar.