Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

They eat all the food, never leave

Confining zebra mussels requires all-out effort by government, public

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ZEBRA mussels -- the pesky, striped mollusks that have invaded Lake Winnipeg -- are like uninvited party guests.

You don't know they're there until they wreck something, they eat all the food and they never want to leave.

"Our members are worried, wondering what it's going to mean for the fisheries of Lake Winnipeg and the tributaries, areas downstream as well, but we fear the worst," said Rob Olson, the managing director of the Manitoba Wildlife Federation. Olson said his office is fielding daily calls from concerned members.

"Our members wonder what this will mean for the walleye. The Lake Winnipeg fishery has become one of the top walleye fisheries in North America and the ice fishery especially. It is incredible, with literally thousands of people fishing out there on any given warm winter day."

"The other concern we've heard is from cottage owners wondering what this is going to do to the already uncertain situation with the water quality in the lake. What does this mean? Is it good or bad?"

Olson said there are rumours and myths surrounding the presence of zebra mussels. It's well-known they consume algae, an important food source for other organisms, which could mean less nutrients for fish. There could be fewer algae, which would mean more clear lake water but less filtration for the sun's rays, which could warm the water deeper than normal, impacting the growth of plants and fish in deeper water, impacting the food chain.

Don Lamont, an avid fisher, fishing columnist and editor of Hooked Magazine, said education and action are going to be the keys to stopping the pesky mollusks from spreading farther.

"People need to understand what they need to look for, what they need to do. Unless the anglers and boaters are willing participants, it's going to be tough thing. The worst thing that could happen is for it to spread to other freshwater lakes in the province," Lamont said.

"I've talked to lots of anglers that fished in jurisdictions that have zebra mussels and it's not much fun. It's devastating to, not so much the fish, but intakes and infrastructure and all the work required for anglers once they take their boats out of the water. It's a long-term impact and it's going to require some vigilance by the public."

In Minnesota, the fight against the invasion of zebra mussels in numerous waterways has been raging for several years. There's still new infestations but officials are using legislation, education, criminal charges, fines and most recently, dogs, to try to gain compliance from the public.

Greg Salo, an enforcement officer in Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources, said zebra mussels have invaded a few dozen lakes and major river systems -- all the large, high-traffic recreation lakes. That's because people enable the species to move by leaving them attached to or inside their water toys and transferring them to other bodies of water.

"I have not heard of any huge impact yet on the ecosystem yet except for squeezing out native mussels by taking away the food source, but the recreational impacts have been huge. They're sharp, like little razor blades, they clog up water intakes, they screw up motors, they stick on motors and congregate in the cracks and crevasses," he said.

He said there are 140 field officers in Minnesota who, in addition to their other duties, put in at least 80 hours each per summer carrying out inspections to stop the spread of zebra mussels. "Last year we also got 'mussel dogs,' two dogs that are trained to detect zebra mussels. What it would take inspectors at a public access areas 15 to 20 minutes to find, the dogs smell them in a second."

Salo said there are about 30 check stations around the state where anyone pulling any water-related equipment must submit to an inspection with decontamination units, power washers with water heated to 60 C, on-site. "Our goal right now is to have zero new infestations, just stop the spread of it," Salo said.

ashley.prest@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 12, 2014 A3

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Updated on Tuesday, August 12, 2014 at 6:57 AM CDT: Changes photo

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