The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) needs volunteers in Whatcom County to search for a small freshwater mussel causing billion-dollar headaches in the eastern United States and likely headed this way.
WDFW has established a network of trained volunteers throughout the state to conduct surveys for the inch-long mussels, which are easily identified by their alternating dark and light stripes. Pamala Meacham, assistant coordinator of the Aquatic Nuisance Species Program, said that while most parts of the state have minimal monitoring coverage, the Whatcom County-area is currently in need of volunteers.
"We are particularly interested in area residents with access to a boat, as well as shoreline property owners," Meacham said, adding that it's likely not a question of "if" zebra mussels begin colonizing here, but "when."
Meacham said zebra mussels typically spread from state to state by attaching themselves to boats and other watercraft, or their trailers.
"We found four boats in the past year in this state with zebra mussels attached to them," she said. They reproduce rapidly and attach themselves to virtually any underwater structure, including power plant intake pipes, fish ladders, and docks.
Since their entry into U.S. waters through a ship's ballast water in 1986, the mussels have quickly colonized through 22 eastern states and some Canadian provinces. To date, it has cost federal, state, and local jurisdictions upwards of $5 billion to clean zebra mussels from in-water structures.
As filter feeders, zebra mussels can effectively "scrub" the water of the nutrients needed to build the healthy food chain that all other animals rely upon. They can quickly crowd out native species by taking over available habitat and food sources, forming dense mats up to six feet thick. Their sharp shells can cause cuts on fish migrating over fish ladders when those structures become encrusted with mussels, leading to potential disease problems for the fish.
"They are also free-floating in the larval stage, which makes them highly transportable down river systems and other bodies of water. If we were to get them in the headwaters of the Columbia River system, it would probably only take two years for them to colonize the river all the way to the mouth at Astoria, Oregon."
Waterfront property owners are needed to suspend special PVC pipe sampling kits in the water and make routine checks for attached mussels. Other volunteers are needed to walk shorelines and look for mussels attached to rocks or other structures.
Anyone interested in volunteering for zebra mussel monitoring can contact Meacham at (360) 902-2741.