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NW Fishletter #383, July 2, 2018

[5] With Two Boat Inspection Stations, WDFW Looks To Mussel-Sniffing Dog For Help

It's not a done deal, but Eric Anderson of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has high hopes that by this time next year, the state will own its first invasive mussel-sniffing dog--a move that could help save hundreds of millions of dollars by preventing zebra and quagga mussels from taking hold in the Pacific Northwest.

And while that dog would be just one tool in his arsenal against invasive aquatics, Anderson sees it as a major step forward in the fight to keep the last major river in the continental U.S. free of these tiny yet formidable creatures.

With super-sensitive noses, mussel-sniffing dogs find their suspects at a boat inspection in seconds, and alert inspectors to look in a watercraft's crevasses that might otherwise be missed. Dogs are also good ambassadors and can help educate boaters to clean, dry and drain their boat every time they take it out of the water.

Anderson is the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's captain of invasive aquatic species enforcement, a duty with much at stake. The mussels are pervasive, and their potential damage is daunting.

"It's almost like a bad sci-fi movie, the way they take over a water body and start competing," Anderson said.

They've been a threat for decades. Native to the Caspian and Black seas in Eastern Europe, zebra mussels were first identified in the U.S. Great Lakes in 1989, and have since spread to 20 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. Quagga mussels arrived a year later. "They're a little more dangerous," Anderson said. "They reproduce faster, and can survive in colder water--almost like a zebra mussel on steroids." These mussels spread easily by attaching themselves to boats--even those hauled over land--because they can live out of water for up to 30 days, and infest new waterways once the boat puts in at a new location.

And once they take hold, they're impossible to eradicate. According to WDFW, they are the most expensive aquatic invasive species to invade the U.S., costing some $5 billion annually in prevention and control efforts. They multiply rapidly, plugging up pumps and pipes and attaching themselves to any hard surfaces in the water. Anderson said it would cost an average of $20 million a year at each hydroelectric dam to remove mussels from the many surfaces and maintain equipment. Irrigation districts, along with municipal and industrial water facilities, would also face significant costs.

In a body of water where they're not native, mussels disrupt the food web, and can even impact spawning areas for endangered salmon and steelhead, Anderson said. He envisions bypasses and fish ladders covered in mussels, their sharp shells slicing into the bodies of young salmon as they get flushed downstream, and affecting adults as they swim upstream.

In addition to work by states, preventing the spread of non-native and invasive species is one of the key priorities in the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's Fish and Wildlife Program. Mussels have been identified as a significant threat to salmon and steelhead recovery. In 2016, invasive mussel larvae were discovered in eastern Montana in the Missouri River drainage, prompting federal aid and an emergency response by the state.

Despite the potential damage, Washington has lagged behind other states in trying to prevent these invaders from reaching the Columbia River. A 2016 WDFW report noted that compared to 12 other states with aquatic invasive species programs, Washington's ranked near the bottom--only Alaska's was smaller. While Idaho has about 21 boat inspection stations, Washington has just two, Anderson said. "We have the smallest budget out of four in the Pacific Northwest. We need to bump it up," he said, adding, "This is a case where an ounce of prevention is worth millions and millions of saved dollars in the state of Washington." Studies show once they're here, combating these mussels throughout the Pacific Northwest would cost an estimated $500 million every year.

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Mussels removed from a boat at the Spokane Port of Entry by WSP Inspectors. Courtesy WDFW

Anderson said Washington's program has ramped up over the last few years, however, at least in part thanks to extra funding from the U.S. Department of Interior and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which provided an additional $250,000 to the program last year and another $450,000 this year. A new state law also allows the agency to collect fees from nonresident boaters, he said.

"Those federal grants have helped us literally double the program," he said.

Before 2017, Washington set up roving inspection stations to check boats coming into the state. Last year, the state opened a permanent station in the Tri-Cities, on U.S. Route 395. And in April, it opened the permanent check station near Spokane, at Exit 299 off Interstate 90, near the border with Idaho. "We went from an average of 2,000 to 3,000 inspections a year to last year, just under 10,000, and this year we're almost up to 10,000 already," he said. "We figure we're going to probably come close to inspecting 20,000 boats this year."

Already, the effort has had success. Anderson said inspectors have intercepted two boats coming into the state with invasive mussels, including a pontoon boat found in May with dead zebra mussels, being transported from Michigan to Alaska, that had already made it through other inspection stations unnoticed.

If a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation grant to purchase a mussel-sniffing dog comes through--which Anderson said is now about 85-percent certain--the new dog will help sniff out mussels at the Spokane inspection station, and also be used as an early-detection device, sniffing for evidence on Columbia River shorelines, especially Lake Roosevelt, which is the top destination for boaters from outside the state.

Anderson said some people believe an invasion of mussels is inevitable. The way he sees it, every year delaying that invasion saves Washington citizens hundreds of thousands of dollars and gets scientists that much closer to figuring out how to prevent them from spreading.

Meanwhile, Anderson said, a new dog would help with his number-one prevention tool--education. Much more than a pamphlet or a fine, dogs are a great way to reach out to the public, he said. "We might have these little cards made up with a picture of the dog that say, 'You've been sniffed,'" and hand them out at inspection stations, he said. -K.C. Mehaffey

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NW Fishletter is produced by NewsData LLC.
Publisher/Editor-in-Chief: Mark Ohrenschall, Editor: K.C. Mehaffey
Phone: (206) 285-4848 Fax: (206) 281-8035

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