BC under threat from invasive mussels as provincial funding scales back

BC under threat from invasive mussels as provincial funding scales back
THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-U.S. Department of Agriculture via AP
A group of zebra mussels is shown in an undated file photo provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

British Columbia’s fish populations and freshwater ecosystems are up against a serious threat as two species of invasive mussels close in on the still mussel-free province. In September 2023, quagga mussels were found in Idaho’s Snake River, a tributary of the Columbia River.

“We have had dozens of close calls in BC in the past few years with mussel-infested boats crossing the border,” said BC Wildlife Federation Executive Director Jesse Zeman in a press release. “These mussels are the biggest threat known to our freshwater ecosystems; an infestation would be disastrous.”

“And we’re not the only ones concerned,” said James Littley during a BC Wildlife Federation webinar on January 30. “Just a few months ago, the US Government Accountability Office called invasive muscles the species of greatest concern to the US Army Corps of Engineers.” Littley is part of the Okanagan Basin Water Board (OBWB), which has been leading the ‘Don’t Move a Mussel’ campaign since 2013.

Quagga and zebra mussels have caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage in the United States and Eastern Canada by attaching to boats, motors, trailers, and marine equipment. They reproduce very quickly and are nearly impossible to eradicate once established. Infestations have clogged pipes, municipal water intake gear, and hydropower equipment.

SEE ALSO: Up to the gills in goldfish: Large invasive fish a problem in B.C. waters: expert

Despite the threat, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), FortisBC, and BC Hydro are scaling back their support for invasive mussel surveillance in BC. DFO has reduced its support from $475,000 in 2022 to zero in 2023. Support from FortisBC has dropped from $250,000 in 2020 to zero in 2023. BC Hydro’s support for the program has dropped steadily since 2020, from $1.25 million to just $350,000.

Surveillance programs that monitor incoming watercraft and gear are the most effective means of preventing mussels from entering freshwater systems. Between May and December 2023, BC’s Invasive Mussel Defence Program intercepted 155 watercraft on their way into BC that were identified as high-risk: 79 were decontaminated and 36 were quarantined. Fourteen were confirmed to have invasive mussels.

“But those stations are seasonal. They are not open 24 hours or even dawn to dusk in some cases,” said Littley. “And if you come on a different route into the province or if you come on one of these routes while the station is closed or out of season, there is no legal requirement for you to report for an inspection.”

When quagga mussels were detected in Idaho’s Snake River, the state’s response was to dump more than 116,000 litres of chelated copper into the waters. Though it quickly and effectively killed the quagga mussels, it also killed fish and other wildlife.

“They basically poisoned a 26-kilometre stretch of the river before the dilution went below lethal levels,” said Littley. “I can’t imagine pulling a truck up filled with anything like this to any of our lakes in BC, but this was considered a better option in Idaho than letting the mussels survive. And unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that it worked.”

In October, the OBWB began calling for a temporary moratorium on watercraft coming into BC until results from Idaho’s efforts are known in the spring, and the Province of BC has closed any gaps in its Invasive Mussel Defence Program.

READ ALSO: Invasive beetle damaging Nanaimo turf fields

Local Journalism InitiativeLocal Journalism Initiative

Recent Stories

Send us your news tips and videos!