LEWISTON – Quagga and zebra mussels are more frightening to Capt. Eric Anderson than any horror flick villain.
When introduced into new freshwater systems, the bivalves reproduce by the millions and billions, wreaking havoc on human infrastructure and native ecosystems.
“The colonization in some water bodies has been like a bad science fiction movie,” said the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife law enforcement officers tasked with fighting aquatic invasive species.
About the size of pistachios, the sharp-edged mussels cling to any and all underwater hard surfaces including dams, docks and boats. They clog irrigation and municipal water intake pipes and cause boat engines to overheat. They filter so much water, Anderson said, they can starve out native species by vacuuming up micro-organisms at the bottom of the food web.
“The Columbia and Snake river (system) is the last great river basin in the contiguous 48 states not to have them,” he said. “If we get them, they will literally devastate the economy and ecosystem that revolves around the Columbia River.”
He worries juvenile salmon and steelhead diverted into fish bypass systems as they travel past dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers could easily be injured by brushing against the hard shells and that hatchery infrastructures could be swamped by the invaders.
In an effort to prevent those and other impacts, the WDFW recently opened an aquatic invasive species check station on the west end of Port Drive in Clarkston. It’s one of a handful in the state and part of a network of check stations in the Pacific Northwest, including Idaho.
Motorists towing vessels are required to stop at the check station. Signs directing them to do so are posted on U.S. Highway 12 when the check station is staffed. Other stations are located near Spokane, Cle Elum, Washington, and the Tri-Cities.
The mussels are native to eastern Europe and were likely spread to North America via the ballast water of ocean-going ships entering bodies of water like the Saint Lawrence Seaway. They are established in the Great Lakes, where mitigation efforts cost an estimated $500 million per year.
They move between freshwater lakes and rivers in North America by clinging to recreational and commercial vessels.
“That is the No. 1 vector for moving these things around,” Anderson said.
Thus, the network of check stations. People trailering boats are directed to pull into the stations for a quick inspection. Last year, Washington checked more than 56,000 boats and had 39 “intercepts” – boats found to be carrying quagga or zebra mussels.
When they are found, the boats are decontaminated, though the Clarkston station doesn’t have the equipment to do so. Anderson said if mussels are found on a vessel at the Clarkston station, the owners will be directed to quarantine their boats or make an appointment to have it decontaminated. The Port of Clarkston is providing space for the station via a no-cost lease.
On rare occasions, canine inspectors will be at the Clarkston check station to use their powerful noses to look for mussels. Puddles and Fin, dogs housed at Spokane, often travel to other check stations.
“They can perform an inspection in probably 30 seconds on an average boat,” Anderson said. “They are not only capable of sniffing adult mussels and parts of mussels, they can even detect the larva in water.”
The two mix-breed dogs are also ice-breakers and help the department conduct its education campaign – a secondary purpose of the check stations.
“They are an amazing tool not only in detection but also in outreach,” Anderson said. “We have reached way more people than if we didn’t have them.”
Part of the education effort is to spread the mantra “clean, dry and drain.”
Anderson said watercraft owners can help stop the spread of invasive species by cleaning their boats of things like mud and aquatic vegetation, draining the bilge and engines and drying their boats before transferring them between water bodies.
More information is available at bit.ly/3y0lvYE.
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