Authorities in the Northwest are on the lookout for invaders. Checkpoints are being set up, and some motorists will be pulled over. If you don’t cooperate, you could be sorry.
The objects of so much attention in Washington and Idaho are fingernail-size zebra and quagga mussels, freshwater mollusks that are impossible to eradicate once established in a region’s lakes and streams. If they do take up residence, they cause serious damage, not only by upsetting the ecological balance but also by clogging intake pipes of power plants and municipal water utilities.
They showed up in the Great Lakes in the mid-1980s, having escaped Eastern Europe’s Caspian Sea in the ballast water of transoceanic tanker ships. They’ve since made their way to a few other states, including Utah, but Idaho and Washington are gamely determined to seal their borders.
Idaho lawmakers this year approved new boating fees that will pay for education, inspection and decontamination programs. Washington’s Legislature previously gave the Department of Fish and Wildlife authority to set up checkpoints and pull boat trailers over to be examined.
In a dramatic incident this week, the department, acting on a tip originating in Utah, confiscated a mussel-bound pleasure boat in Spokane and gave it a vigorous scraping and a blast of hot water on Thursday. The owner could face fines and even jail, although department officials say criminal penalties normally won’t be imposed if boat owners cooperate with the inspection process.
Does a handful of bivalves clinging to a boat hull justify all the commotion? It does.
Boaters need to understand and accept the responsibility of checking their craft when they pull it from the water and rinsing away anything that has attached itself – mussels themselves as well as aquatic plants onto which the mussels like to affix themselves. Because these tiny shellfish can live for a month out of water, they spread by hitchhiking on boats from one water body to another. And they are furiously prolific, one female depositing up to a million eggs a year.
They eat by filtering the water, thus starving native species that customarily dine on plankton. Meanwhile, the clearer water lets sunlight penetrate deeper than usual to promote oxygen-robbing algae growth.
By colonizing inlet pipes, the mussels severely damage the community infrastructure. They foul beaches.
In short, they are unwanted guests in a region whose glorious outdoors is both a powerful magnet for tourists and a treasured quality of life for residents.
In 1994, days before he lost his last re-election bid, then-Speaker of the House Tom Foley was lampooned in a letter to the editor of The Spokesman-Review for defending a $5 million federal study of zebra mussels. If that investment produced findings that can help Idaho and Washington fend off the present mussel threat, residents and taxpayers of this region should appreciate that it was no laughing matter.
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