All eyes on plan to blast zebra mussels
WINNIPEG—They are small clam-like creatures that seem to spread in the blink of an eye and squeeze the life out of the rivers and lakes they inhabit.
This summer, those who grapple with zebra mussels will be watching Manitoba, where officials are trying to stop an invasion with a unique experiment.
Liquid potash then will be pumped into the water until it reaches a lethal concentration for the mussels and clogs their gills.
The technique has been tried in a closed quarry, but this is believed to be the first time liquid potash has been used in open water.
Scientists who study the mussels say Manitoba presents a “golden opportunity” to find a way to prevent their proliferation in waterways around the world.
The postash plan will cost $500,000, but many say it could save millions down the road if it works.
“There is only one guarantee and that is, if nothing is done, then the situation will certainly get worse,” said Manitoba Conservation minister Gord Mackintosh.
“The impact of zebra mussels in areas where they have infested waterways is quite profound.”
The invasive mussels, which already are in the Great Lakes and have spread throughout parts of the U.S., were found for the first time in Manitoba last October.
The tiny mussels reproduce rapidly. One female can produce up to one million eggs a year.
The water-borne, microscopic larvae can be carried unwittingly from lake to lake in buckets and in the live wells of boats.
Once hatched, the mussels can attach to virtually any hard surface, including other native mussels and crayfish.
They clog up pipes and hydro dams. They threaten fish by interfering with the food chain and have been linked to increases in toxic blue-green algae.
“Where zebra mussels have established, they have a significant ecological and economic impact,” said Laureen Janusz, fisheries biologist with Manitoba Conservation.
“There are annual maintenance costs to having zebra mussels that just never go away.”
The Manitoba government was presented with a series of options once the mussels were discovered.
Although liquid potash had never been tried in open water, it unanimously was agreed upon, Janusz said.
Liquid potash is lethal for zebra mussels, but doesn’t appear to hurt any other aquatic life aside from native mussels, she noted.
“Everyone is still trying to find a control that has no effect on anything else.”
But those who depend on the lake for their livelihoods are concerned about the experiment and the impact it could have on the short fishing season.
Jocelyn Burzuik, with the Gimli Harbour Authority, said Lake Winnipeg is no ordinary lake. It is so huge, it has its own wind tides, making it unpredictable and dangerous.
“It’s going to be very tricky,” Burzuik warned.
Complicating matters further, added Burzuik, both commercial fishermen and those injecting the water with liquid potash need access to the harbour when the water temperature rises to between 10 and 12 C.
The two groups are working together to figure out how the experiment can go ahead without devastating the fishery, she said.
“It’s not that we don’t want them to treat zebra mussels. We know exactly what they can do to a fishery,” Burzuik stressed.
“The cure cannot kill the community.”
Meanwhile, many are watching the outcome.
Hugh MacIsaac, director of the Canadian Aquatic Invasive Species Network, said scientist are very interested in finding effective ways to kill zebra mussels before they take hold.