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Article Archive >> Community

Little Boats Can Cause Big Problems

Little Boats Can Cause Big Problems

Boats, like humans, are vessels of sickness.
One boat owner can unintentionally change an ecosystem, ruin a fishery and run up a tab of impact into the millions, even billions, of dollars.
Such was the case when a transoceanic ship introduced zebra mussels - a small, freshwater, bivalve mollusk native to Eastern Europe - into the Great Lakes through the St. Lawrence Seaway, in the late 1980s. The pesky little invaders eventually set up shop in all the Great Lakes and have now spread throughout the Mississippi drainage and into the Susquehanna. The quagga mussel, another exotic freshwater immigrant from the same part of the world was identified in the Great Lakes shortly thereafter and has also begun to spread.
Together, the tiny creatures are ready to take over the freshwater world of the United States. Commercial boats have been identified as the main means of transportation for the mussels, but recreational boaters are the prime suspects in introducing the aliens to waters that have no commercial traffic.
For example, quagga mussels are now found in waters in Arizona and New Mexico where they arrived on recreational boat hulls. Zebra mussels were found in a quarry in Virginia.
The small creatures - zebra mussels are commonly about the size of a thumbnail and quagga mussels a little larger - are prolific. Finding one means there likely are millions already established.
They don't bury themselves in mud like the mollusks most Americans are accustomed to, but attach themselves to any hard surface available: boat hulls, piers, pipes, cables, and other mussels. Some experts estimate that a million can grow in a square meter.
The weight of zebra and quagga infestations can bring down piers, make boats float oddly and plug up water intake pipes at dams and water treatment plants. Repairing the damage and keeping those pipes clean is a major concern and is expected to cost billions of dollars.
The European mussels are displacing native bivalves in every location they have been discovered. The mussels filter plankton from the water and compete with native species for food, causing a dramatic change in the ecosystem. The filtering does improve water clarity, but allows more sunlight to reach deeper water which also wreaks havoc with the ecosystem.
The shells of deceased zebra and quagga mussels litter the shores of infested waters and don't provide pretty collections for tourists. The shells are numerous and sharp and rip the soft flesh of feet and shred rubber or plastic sandals.
The infestation of the exotic mussels has reached a point of no return, but that doesn't mean that boaters should throw in the towel. Researchers are looking for ways to control the outbreak, or at least ways to slow it, and every month that goes by without a mollusk showing up in a new waterway is a good month.
Wondering if the boat in your garage has zebra or quagga mussels on or in it as you read this? You should be thinking about it.
It is important for boaters to always check their boat's hull, bait wells, live boxes, motor and trailer to be sure they aren't transporting the mussels.
Young mussels can be hard to see, so people should run their hand along the hull feeling for small bumps. The motor, live well and bilge should all be drained when the boat is pulled from the water. All vegetation should be removed from the boat and the trailer.
Once away from the water, and long before heading to any different waters, boaters should rinse the boat trailer and equipment. A high pressure, hot water bath, like at a car wash, is the best method.
Before moving from one water body to the next, dry the boat and any equipment that may have gotten wet for as long as possible. Most experts say five days is optimal because mussels can live for several days out of the water.
Agencies at some waters across the country question boaters about where they have been in recent weeks. If the answer is a known harbor of exotic mussels, then the boat gets a washing before it is allowed to launch.
Taking these precautions takes time, but look at them as a prescription for a healthy ecosystem in your favorite waters.
Who knows what other yet-to-be detected invasive species you may be doing away with?

Brett Prettyman is an outdoors writer at the Salt Lake Tribune in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he lives. This commentary is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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