Boaters key to thwarting invasive species
By Paul Bruun, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
March 4, 2009
Less than rosy are the futures of big city daily newspapers. Before they all follow the path to extinction taken by the Rocky Mountain News last week, please recognize the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and staff writer Dan Egan. In what is the most factual and dramatic account I’ve read anywhere, Egan details the quagga mussel invasion of Lake Mead as the first of future epicenters in the emerging saga of exotic Great Lakes scourges heading West. (www.jsonline.com/news/usandworld/40037927.html).
The Great Lakes have been victimized by an endless array of fast-growing vermin in the last 30 years. This is courtesy of a spineless Congress (read – acute lobbying) that refuses to slam down barriers to prevent foreign ocean shipping from dumping seawater ballast laden with uncontrollable organisms.
In less extreme climates, equally irresponsible private twits have foisted exotic aquarium grasses, fish, lizards, snakes and snails into hapless freshwater lakes and canals, where the results have been similarly spectacular. Containment costs and environmental devastation are soaring throughout the East and Southeast as well as the Midwest.
It is difficult to say where the biggest environmental messes reside. Chemical treatment of waterways and lakes for milfoil, water chestnut, hyacinth and hydrilla weeds costs state and federal agencies millions of dollars annually. This is in addition to other millions being used to keep dams, river lock devices, water intakes and other submerged equipment operable due to exotic zebra and quagga mussel infestations in the Great Lakes and surrounding waterways.
Shells on anchor a bad sign
The Great Lakes picture is bleak, but because of the distance between the great St. Lawrence Seaway ports that opened to the ocean 50 years ago and are infested and overrun today, who would have guessed that inland oceans on the Colorado River system would be susceptible to such devastating imports? Well, nobody until January 2007.
That’s when a marina worker at Lake Mead, outside of Las Vegas, found some small suspicious shells clinging to an anchor. They were quagga mussels and what took decades to migrate around the Great lakes has taken only months to envelop Hoover Dam. Quaggas numbering 55,000 per square meter have blackened the brown canyon walls above the giant dam, which still prevails as one of the manmade wonders of the world.
Such a marine infestation should not be a surprise. A kinder, gentler but planned migration between East and West took place many years ago with popular East Coast and Midwest gamefish such as largemouth and smallmouth bass, shad, walleye and stripped bass that now flourish in varying drainages between the Columbia River in Washington and Martinez Lake at the bottom of the Colorado River system near Yuma. The bass populations are favorite fixtures in Lakes Powell, Mead, Mohave, Havasu and Martinez, while the tiny enemy-less mussels are not.
After digesting the thorough treatment that Journal Sentinel writer Egan gave to Lake Mead’s latest problem while also highlighting the continuing devastation facing the Great Lakes, I’m in a quandary bordering on defeat. This column has previously featured the problems facing our state’s grandest waterways and Greater Yellowstone area. But it wasn’t until right now that I’ve realized that unless all lakes and waterways are closed to outsider boating, we are defenseless in this war against exotic intrusion.
Aquatic recreation, which I champion and admire is the strongest link in the dissemination of aquatic nuisance species. Quagga mussels most likely arrived in Lake Mead fastened to the hull, engine or a piece of gear or in the bilge water of a private boat cruising other mussel-infested water. In spite of several “certified” cleanings, last spring the cooling systems of a twin-engine cruiser were discovered to be thoroughly mussel filled by a mechanic at Lucerne Marina in the Utah portion of Flaming Gorge. It is believed this mussel incident was contained, but remember that this impoundment bordering Wyoming and Utah is only 200 miles from Jackson.
The new Greater Yellowstone Area Aquatic Nuisance Species Working Group is headed by James Capurso, a dedicated and talented biologist with the Caribou-Targhee National Forest (208-557-5780; email@example.com). This collection of federal, state and local agency personnel, outfitters and environmental groups has adopted an ambitious agenda that includes survey, research, outreach/education and control.
Jackson Hole/Yellowstone fall squarely within the drainages still mostly free of major exotic aquatic nuisances. As such they become magnetic summer recreation and tourism crossroads for power boats, sailboats, trailers, canoes and kayaks used in nuisance-species-infected climes in winter. Therefore, pinpointing such potential nuisance-species carriers and educating waterway users are the two most practical first lines of defense. In an area this vast and handicapped by dwindling federal and state funds, such environmental safeguard challenges are nearly insurmountable.
Grand Teton National Park and Jackson Lake are host to a number of watercraft that either reside in or visit Colorado River impoundments over the winter. Regulations require marina concessionaires in Grand Teton to notify outsiders of cleaning requirements before launching. Yellowstone is preparing a high tech transportable cleaning station for launch areas and marinas. Last summer Fremont County, Idaho where popular Henrys Lake attracts angling boaters from around the country, installed several mechanical wash stations to prevent the spread of Eurasian water milfoil from plowing into the shallow, rich lake. The Snake River Fund previewed the first portable solar powered boat washing station at Pritchard Creek on the Snake River and has plans for additional units.
Aquatic nuisance species take the form of weeds and non-native snails, fish and algae – plants like the water guzzling salt cedar (tamarisk), zebra and quagga mussels, and the deadly fish virus called whirling disease, New Zealand mud snails and many other similar species. They cling to everything that’s submerged and manage to tolerate an extensive range of conditions without losing their sudden impact.
Sue O’Ney, Grand Teton National Park resource management biologist, cleverly located grant monies to partially fund an aquatic nuisance species specialist for summer 2008. During interviews at Snake River launch sites as well as those on Jackson, Jenny and String lakes, most of the contacts knew little about invasive and nuisance species but were eager to learn more. In many more places, boat inspection will become the norm before launching. Policing our waters and turning back the threat of invasive species is up to all of us.
Entire biologies change
This article has ignored another major impact of nuisance species such as quagga mussels, which are filter feeders. Mussel impact is affecting the zooplankton base of the Great Lakes to such a degree that forage fish, the basis for the Great Lakes sport fishing industry, are disappearing. Plankton is also the basic food supply for bait and many gamefish fry. Since quagga mussels arrived, the entire biology of the affected watercourses are changing for the worse.
Bob Wiltshire, a former Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist, has taken up the call of this latest challenge to our waterways by founding the Center for Aquatic Nuisance Species (406-220-2059; firstname.lastname@example.org) in Livingston, Mont. Bob has created a Clean Angling Pledge (www.stopans.org/pledge/promote.php) a simple action program of “Inspect-Clean-Dry” after gear use.
The runaway aquatic nuisance species freight train is barreling down on us all too fast. Without becoming too dramatic, the only opportunity to thwart a total takeover is for every boater, angler and recreational water user to take responsibility and learn more about all the enemies.
Most nuisance species are far too determined and fast spreading to be stopped once they are introduced. The West, with its superhighways of irrigation infrastructure that deliver water over a vast area, is facing millions of dollars in maintenance once quagga mussels take hold.
In the fight against aquatic nuisance species, there ain’t gonna be a rematch.
Paul Bruun writes weekly on his adventures and misadventures in the great outdoors.