Prolific invasive species that’s hard to eradicate is found in NC wild, officials say

A harmful invasive species with the ability to spread quickly and clog water systems has spread to one of its newest locations: North Carolina.

Zebra mussels, an aquatic invasive species, were found in an Iredell County quarry, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission officials said in a Sept. 22 news release. It marks the first time the species has been found in the wild in the state.

Officials with the commission and scuba divers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigated a report they received saying zebra mussels had been found on private property in the area, according to the release. The report was confirmed Thursday, Sept. 21.

NCWRC believes the mussels are contained to the quarry and is working on options for treatment while continuing its investigation,” officials said in the release.

Zebra mussels are “small, freshwater, bivalve shellfish,” according to the National Park Service. They are considered easy to identify because of their D-shaped, cream-colored shells with a black zig-zagged pattern striping across. The shellfish can grow up to 2 inches, the National Park Service says.

In 2021, zebra mussels were spotted living inside pet store-sold moss balls advertised for aquariums, according to N.C. officials. Selling or buying zebra mussels to be kept in North Carolina waters is illegal, the release says.

Originating from the Black, Caspian and Azov seas near Ukraine and Russia, zebra mussels are thought to have been brought over to the United States as “stowaways in the ballast water of ships,” according to the National Park Service. After initially being discovered in waters between the U.S. and Canada in the late 1980s, zebra mussels have since spread into the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.

Zebra mussels are known to out-compete other shellfish in the waters they infest. As “highly efficient” filter feeders, zebra mussels siphon out plankton from their environment, effectively starving out native species that rely on plankton for food, according to the National Park Service. They also can clog wastewater and public drinking systems, N.C. officials say.

A major concern with the invasive species is the rate at which it can spread to different water bodies. Zebra mussels spread very quickly by latching onto “boats, dock lifts and other water-related equipment,” officials say. They can even attach themselves to other mussels by using threads underneath their shells, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

What presents even more of a problem is zebra mussel reproduction, as a female zebra mussel “can release up to a million eggs” in a year, according to the National Park Service. As a result, those eggs and larvae can be spread into different waters by humans, whether it be on diving equipment, bait buckets or live wells, N.C. officials say.

“Once a population of zebra mussels has become established in a water body, there is very little to be done to remove them,” the National Park Service says.

Prevention is considered to be the best treatment for zebra mussels, according to the National Park Service. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission recommends the following steps to stop the spread of zebra mussels:

  • Clean all equipment used in water

  • Drain water in boats and other equipment before reentering other waterways

  • Dry all water-related equipment before using again

  • Do not transport aquatic species between different bodies of water

Iredell County borders Mecklenburg County, where Charlotte is located.

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