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Close call: Washington-bound boat carrying invasive mussels stopped in Montana

UPDATED: Wed., April 25, 2018

This undated file photo provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows a group of zebra mussels. (Associated Press)
This undated file photo provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows a group of zebra mussels. (Associated Press)

Montana officials found invasive zebra mussels clinging to a boat headed toward Washington Friday.

The boat was stopped, and Washington officials were notified, said Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Capt. Eric Anderson.

“We want to keep these things out of our waters,” Anderson said. “If they get in I hate to say it there is not a whole lot you can do once they get in other than hemorrhage money.”

Anderson is the head of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife aquatic invasive species enforcement division.

However, the stop is an example of the defensive net Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington officials are erecting in hopes of keeping aquatic invasive species at bay. And, it highlights the precarious nature of the fight against aquatic invasive species.

Wyoming, Washington, Oregon and Idaho are the only states in the West still free of invasive quagga and zebra mussels, which can cause massive damage to waterways, fisheries, irrigation facilities and more.

On Friday, the Montana officials notified WDFW and attempted to decontaminate the boat as best as they could. However, because the boat was being sold to a Washington buyer the commercial transport company did not have keys to the boat, thus making it impossible to fully decontaminate the craft, Anderson said.

The boat originated in Lake Huron.

Instead, the Montana officials padlocked the boat to the trailer. Subsequently the boat was stopped at an Idaho check-station. Idaho officials also notified WDFW officials.

Stops like this are fairly common, Anderson said. Last year Washington officials stopped about eight inbound watercraft contaminated with some type of invasive species.

And while these kind of stops demonstrate the systems’ effectiveness, it’s a reminder of how precarious the situation is.

“These things are cockroaches of the freshwater shellfish world,” Anderson said. “If they get in a body of water they take it over from top to bottom.”

Zebra mussels originate in the Caspian sea. They were introduced into the Great Lakes sometime in the late 1980s via ballast water in transport ships, Anderson said.

“It only took them five years to completely colonize the great lakes and Mississippi River,” Anderson said.

It’s estimated the creatures incur $5 billion in damages every year throughout the Great Lakes and the Mississippi delta.

The tiny mussels can clog pipes, foul dams, and cover beaches, and they can travel from one part of the country to another by hitching rides on trailered boats and other watercraft. The mussels can live for up to a month out of water.

In addition to wrecking economic havoc the mussels can change the whole ecology of lakes and rivers, said Allen Pleus the WDFW aquatic invasive species statewide coordinator.

“They’re ecosystem changers,” he said.

The mussels choke out other types of lake life, throwing the ecosystem out of balance and creating diseases.

“All we’re asking is you do aquatic hygiene before you go to another lake,” Pleus said.

The defensive network of check stations aims to slow, or stop the spread of the the species into Idaho and Washington waters.

In 2016 invasive mussels larvae were confirmed in two Montana reservoirs including the famed fishing waters of the Missouri River.

Increased boat inspections in Washington, Idaho and Montana started last year. Officials are particularly concerned about the creatures infesting the Columbia River Basin.

It’s estimated that if the mussels entered the Columbia River system it would cost between $10 and $25 million per hydroelectric facility per year to keep the facilities running, Anderson said.

On May 1 Washington’s boat check station on the Idaho/Washington border on I-90 will move into a permanent structure, Anderson said. It is open 7 days a week.

Washington’s other check station is on Highway 395.

WDFW gets $395,000 per year to go toward the state’s AIS programs, Anderson said. That’s supplemented by grant money.

Last year WDFW supported a bill that would have added a .002 percent tax to statewide utility bills. The money from that tax would have funded AIS programs. The bill was not introduced into the Legislature, Anderson said.

“It would literally affect every person in Easter Washington and a lot of Western Washington,” he said.

And although Anderson hopes for increased funding preventing the spread of the mussels and other invasive aquatic species is incumbent upon boaters. Anderson urges boaters to inspect everything before moving their boats from one body of water to another.

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