Boat inspections keep mussels out of Alberta

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The province’s inspectors conducted almost 22,000 watercraft inspections this year and monitored 66 water bodies 

Zebra mussels hitched a ride into Alberta on at least 11 boats this summer.

Dogs are used in Alberta boat inspection stations to sniff out invasive mussels.
Dogs are used in Alberta boat inspection stations to sniff out invasive mussels.

They were discovered because of the province’s mandatory watercraft inspection laws, which were put in place this year to prevent the entry of invasive species.

Zebra mussels have contaminated water bodies in most of the United States and some Canadian provinces, where they wreak havoc by plugging water infrastructure and destroying aquatic ecosystems.

“We can probably say that we are still free of mussels in Alberta,” Cindy Sawchuk of Alberta’s environment and parks department told the Alberta Irrigation Projects Association’s water conference by Skype Nov. 24.

The province’s inspection and response team decontaminated the 11 boats, but the incidents showed how easily zebra mussels and their equally destructive relatives, quagga mussels, could enter the province.

Sawchuk said inspectors conducted almost 22,000 watercraft inspections this year and monitored 66 provincial water bodies. They also tracked boat traffic entering the province and found it came from 41 states, nine provinces and two territories.

She said continued vigilance is vital because some of those states and provinces have zebra mussels.

She credited the AIPA for its support in developing an Alberta team of dogs trained to detect mussels. The canines are used at border crossings into Alberta from Saskatchewan and the United States.

Dogs have been used at inspection stations for three years, the first two as pilot projects using animals from the U.S.

Alberta now has three dogs on the job, said Sawchuk.

“We now have the first conservation canine program in North America.”

The dogs sniff watercraft at inspection stations and sit if they detect mussel presence. Drivers of the vehicles that are towing or carrying the inspected craft are given a “you’ve been sniffed” card to encourage support and future compliance with the program.

Sawchuk said greater attention will be paid to inspection along the Alberta-Saskatchewan border next year.

Saskatchewan does not have a mussel inspection or monitoring system, and zebra mussels have invaded Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, which increases the risk they will make their way westward.

Starting in March, attention will also be paid to Canadians who spend winters in the U.S. and return in spring with their boats and other watercraft.

Nighttime border crossings are a concern, said Sawchuk. The dogs cannot work constantly, and human inspectors can miss the tiny mussels, especially at night.

“We know for a fact that boaters will purposely avoid going through our inspection stations (until) after hours so they don’t have to stop.”

Mandatory watercraft inspection includes kayaks and canoes, and Sawchuk said numerous travelers carrying those were chased down this year after failing to stop.

“By law, every type of watercraft has to stop if our inspection station is open,” she said.

Sawchuk said only three provinces and five states remain mussel-free, which makes the risk of mussels entering Alberta high.

The key is to raise awareness of the threat and the importance of cleaning, draining and drying watercraft before entering the province.

“It is a challenge. To be honest, it’s a challenge that we all face.”

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