Alberta sniffer dogs protecting waters from invasive zebra mussels

Sniffer dogs to detect invasive zebra mussels in Manitoba

Alberta is pulling out all the stops to help prevent a disgusting ooze from creeping across the U.S. border.

Invasive quagga and zebra mussels, already a scourge in Canada’s Great Lakes, might be making their way west, and Alberta is taking steps to ensure the destructive creatures don’t hitch a ride south into Montana.

Officials in that state are understandably nervous: it’s one of only five states in the western United States that has so far remained free of the invaders, according to a New York Times article earlier this month that highlighted the extent of the problem with the headline “A Western showdown with mussels.”

Quagga and zebra mussels are thought to have arrived on this continent in the 1980s, discharged from the ballast water of European cargo ships into Lake Erie. The nickel-sized creatures erupt into massive colonies in freshwater lakes and large rivers, filtering out the nutrients other species need to survive. They blanket lakebeds with sharp shells and produce toxic algae blooms that kill fish and birds. Thousands of them can cluster together and clog intake pipes used for human water supplies and power plants.

They have no natural predators, and there is no known way of eradicating them without harming the ecosystem.

Their geographic spread is stealthy: clinging to hulls, anchors, engines and other surfaces, they hitch-hike on travelling boats and boat trailers, barges and sea planes. Microscopic larvae can be transported via water carried in bait buckets or other equipment.

Alberta is trying to stem the flow with new legislation that went into effect in April.

“When highway signage indicates that a watercraft inspection station is open, it is mandatory that all carriers of water-based vessels must report to the onsite inspectors to have their boats, trailers and other water-related equipment checked for invasive species such as the zebra and quagga mussels,” Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) says on its website.

Failure to stop is a violation of the Fisheries Act, and conviction can carry a penalty of up to a year in jail or a fine of up to $100,000 as well as “creative sentencing orders that may be issued … at the discretion of the courts,” AEP says.

If inspectors find any quagga or zebra mussels, they will decontaminate the vessel and possibly order it quarantined for up to 30 days, because that’s how long the critters can survive outside water.

“We are taking these steps to protect Alberta waters from harmful aquatic invasive species that pose great threats to native fisheries, water quality, local economies and industry,” the department says. Officials estimate that an infestation could cost the province more than $75 million a year.

For such a critical task, they’re not relying on human inspectors alone. The province joined forces with the state of Montana to train a team of sniffer dogs to help with inspections.

Not only will they try to stop mussels from crossing into the U.S., they will also check Albertans “returning home from the mussel-infested southern United States,” AEP says.

At the 12 inspection stations activated this year – triple the number there were in 2014 – nearly 22,000 boats were inspected, AEP spokeswoman Kate Wilson told Yahoo Canada News in an interview Wednesday.

They found 16 “mussel-fouled” vessels.

“So that’s really shocking and kind of alarming,” Wilson said. “We still have a very high proportion relative to the number we’re inspecting — because it only takes one.”

The program, which cost Alberta about $1.5 million this year, is part of a larger collaboration that also includes British Columbia, Saskatchewan and the other four mussel-free states – Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming. Wilson says the information-sharing and communication has markedly improved in the past couple of years.

Snowbirds hauling their boats back next March from, for instance, Lake Havasu in Arizona might be inspected four times along the way.

Until a more permanent solution is found, the inspection regime will remain in place.

“The mussels keep getting closer,” Wilson said. “Once they were found in Manitoba, it was an alarm for us and a huge call to action.”

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