A non-profit organization dedicated to keeping invasive mussels out of Okanagan waters fears an increase in domestic travel amid the novel coronavirus pandemic could increase the mollusk’s spread.
Lisa Scott, executive director with the Okanagan and Similkameen Invasive Species Society (OASISS), says COVID-19-related border closures and travel restrictions have already resulted in more people travelling domestically and invasive mussels are spread by contaminated watercraft.
“We originally thought that, due to the pandemic, we would not see a lot of boater traffic here but in actual fact, right across North America, there is significant increased numbers of people out on the lakes,” she said.
In 2019, over 70 per cent of mussel fouled boats in B.C. intercepted by provincial inspectors came from Ontario and three of those boats were destined for the Okanagan.
“If they were to come to the Okanagan, it would change our way of life,” Scott said.
Zebra and quagga mussels are non-native, freshwater mollusks originally from Eastern Europe and Western Russia.
They were first introduced to the Great Lakes region in the 1980s and since then have spread into lakes around North America, hitching a ride on boats and other watercraft.
Invasive mussels damage sensitive ecosystems, clog water intake pipes and water infrastructure, reduce water quality and impact tourism and the local economy.
Scott said an infestation in the Okanagan would be devastating, especially for its renowned beaches.
“As the invasive mussels die, the shells come up onto the shoreline and they are razor sharp, people talk a lot about their cut feet,” she said.
“In the Okanagan, there’s been estimates that it would cost us as taxpayers $43 million annually just to manage invasive mussels, because if they arrive, we are going to only be managing them, we will never get rid of them.”
Zebra and quagga mussels are not established in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Oregon, Idaho or Washington.
B.C.’s Ministry of Environment says the mollusks pose a “serious threat” to B.C.’s aquatic ecosystems and it funds the Invasive Mussel Defence Program to ensure resources are in place to protect B.C. waters.
It is illegal to transport invasive mussels anywhere in B.C. and it is mandatory for motorists with watercraft to report to an inspection station during operating hours.
Motorists who fail to stop at an inspection station can be fined $345.
Scott says some inspection stations are open limited hours and suggests they should be operational 24/7, as well as open earlier in the season, to reduce the threat.
“The challenge we have is that they are only required to stop if they see an inspection station, so we are encouraging anyone coming from out-of-province to contact the Conservation Officer Service so that they can determine if they are high risk and require decontamination,” she said.
OASISS has also released an educational video about the risk invasive mussels pose to local lakes and can be watched here.