B.C. waterways under threat from invasive mussels and parasites

The B.C. Wildlife Federation is concerned about a lack of funding to prevent invasive zebra mussels and to monitor for whirling disease that can decimate fish.

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Conservation groups say B.C.’s water ecosystems are under threat from two invasive species of mussels and a new parasite that causes whirling disease in fish after funding for surveillance has been scaled back.

The federal government, B.C. Hydro, and Fortis B.C. have either pulled or reduced funding for the province’s Invasive Mussel Defence surveillance program. But both the B.C. Wildlife Federation and the province’s Invasive Species Council say prevention is the only method of dealing with these threats.

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While there are no zebra and quagga mussels in B.C. lakes yet, once they get in there’s no way to get rid of the problem, say experts.

The tiny mussels can clog pipes and drain water bodies of the nutrients fish need while whirling disease, which has been found in Alberta and in B.C.’s Yoho National Park, can kill up to 90 per cent of trout and Kokanee salmon.

It can also hurt tourism because the lakes have to be shut down in order to get rid of disease, an effort Jessie Zeman, the federation’s executive director, says can take up to a decade.

“The challenge is if the province doesn’t have the funding then things will get scaled back at the borders, where we have current monitoring stations, which just simply means your risk goes up. And we’ve already had a number of close calls in B.C. as it relates to mussels and so if we roll that back it’s just a matter of time, said Zeman in an interview Friday.

He said B.C. inspectors ordered 51 vessels decontaminated and 28 quarantined just last summer. And in 2022, a large barge being transported from Ontario was found entering B.C. covered in zebra mussels.

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“Every border in B.C. needs a mandatory 24-hour boat inspection station to stop these species from spreading north from the United States and west from Alberta,” Zeman said.

The Fisheries Department reduced mussel surveillance funding from $475,000 in 2022 to zero in 2023/24 according to the federation. The DFO confirmed it would not be continuing support and that the money was intended as a one-time payment.

Asked why that decision was made, a spokesperson for the DFO said this is so the money can be directed to other “imminent” invasive species invasions.

The one-time payment was on top of $500,000 over four years from the DFO for research and education to prevent mussel invasions in the Okanagan. Of this, $400,000 was provided to the Canadian Council of Invasive Species to develop the “Clean, Drain, Dry” program, which encourages boat owners to take responsibility for ensuring no mussels are attached to their watercraft when travelling between provinces. The remaining $100,000 was provided to SFU for research.

B.C. Hydro spokesperson Kevin Aquino acknowledged that invasive mussels “pose a significant risk” to B.C., which is why the company provided $1.25 million over five years to get the monitoring program up and running. However, he said B.C. Hydro expected other funding partners to step up over the years so they could continue to provide funds at a reduced rate.

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“It’s reduced, but we are working with the province on next steps and expect to have more information to share in the coming weeks,” Aquino said in an email Saturday.

Fortis B.C. provided $250,000 a year for the mussel surveillance program between 2017 and 2021 for a total of $1 million. This year they contributed $50,000, according to company spokesperson Lauren Lea.

“Our take on it is that everybody’s looking at the government of Canada to provide leadership. And I think that when the DFO walked away from it, the other groups went ‘well, if it’s not important to the government then it’s not important.’ And so this is that overarching challenge from our perspective,” said Zeman.

“The government of Canada really needs to step up and should be taking care of this 100 per cent. It’s a huge issue. And it’s federal in nature. They should be leading the charge not cutting funding.”

Zeman added that B.C.’s fish are already under threat from climate change, drought and industry so adding invasive mussels and/or the whirling disease would be “catastrophic.”

Gail Wallin, the executive director of the Invasive Species Council of B.C., said if these mussels get into B.C. like they have in Ontario they will “absolutely destroy our lakes and habitats.”

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She thinks people need to “wake up to how serious the threat is” and that B.C. needs to rely on multiple funding partners to keep the prevention program running.

“Because they are prolific breeders they consume and filter out a lot of the nutrients that are in the lakes and then change the composition of the habitat for native fish and animals,” said Wallin.

Meantime, Parks Canada said the first suspected case of whirling disease in B.C. was found in September in Emerald Lake, in Yoho National Park, prompting the closure of the lake and other nearby waterways.

Zeman said together whirling disease and invasive mussels could lead to the collapse of a number of B.C.’s fisheries.

“If whirling disease got into a really small lake you could poison it, potentially, and hopefully get rid of disease over time. But in these big waters, like Okanagan Lake, there’s nothing you can do. We don’t know how to treat it. We don’t know how to manage it.”

The parasite has also been detected in the headwaters of the Columbia River, which runs through the Kootenays, the southern Interior, Washington State, and Oregon.

Parks Canada has closed all waterbodies in Yoho and Kootenay national parks until the end of March.

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—with a file from The Canadian Press

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