BC Wildlife Federation sounds alarm as invasive mussel prevention funding vanishes

Mussel funding dries up

Funding to stop the spread of invasive mussels and parasites to B.C. has dried up, according to the BC Wildlife Federation.

The nonprofit said Monday in a news release it is “deeply concerned” that the federal government, BC Hydro and FortisBC are “failing in their duty to protect our fish.”

Zebra and quagga mussels are responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in damage in the United States and Eastern Canada by attaching themselves to boats, motors, trailers and marine equipment. Nearly impossible to eradicate once established, the invasive mussels can clog pipes, municipal water intake gear and hydropower equipment.

It is estimated that an infestation in B.C. would cost between $64 million and $129 million to manage annually.

Surveillance programs monitoring watercraft coming into B.C. ordered 51 vessels decontaminated and quarantined 28 last summer.

Making matters worse, a new threat has been discovered.

The microscopic parasite that causes whirling disease led to the closure last year of several lakes in Kootenay and Yoho National Parks and Emerald River after several suspected cases of whirling disease were discovered in the Kicking Horse River, Wapta Lake, Monarch Creek and the confluence of the Emerald and Kicking Horse Rivers

The parasite has recently been detected in the headwaters of the Columbia River, which runs through the Kootenays, the southern Interior, Washington State, and Oregon.

“States where this parasite becomes established have seen losses as high as 90 per cent in trout and salmon populations,” said BCWF executive director Jesse Zeman. “We need to create a screening and public education program to stop the spread of these invasive parasites in British Columbia.”

“We need the federal government to step up now with increased surveillance before the effects become catastrophic,” said Zeman. “Every entry point in B.C. needs a mandatory 24-hour boat inspection station to stop these species from spreading north from the United States and west from Alberta.”

The BCWF says the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans has reduced its support for mussel surveillance from $475,000 in 2022 to zero in 2023. BC Hydro’s support for the program has dropped steadily since 2020, from $1.25 million to just $350,000. Support from FortisBC has dropped from $250,000 in 2020 to zero in 2023.

“We have had dozens of close calls in B.C. in the past few years with mussel-infested boats crossing the border,” said Zeman.

“These mussels are the biggest threat known to our freshwater ecosystems; an infestation would be disastrous. Between whirling disease and invasive mussels we could realize the collapse of a number of our fisheries. From ensuring securing borders, to conserving our treasured fish stocks, the lack of leadership from the Government of Canada on this issue is astounding.”

In a statement to Castanet, FortisBC said it "understands the importance" of invasive mussel prevention.

"Our team of qualified environmental professionals take precautions and preventative measures to help prevent invasive aquatic species, like zebra and quagga mussels, from entering B.C. waterways. We have supported the provincial government in their aquatic invasive species monitoring efforts in the region as part of our commitment to protecting the environment in which our employees and customers live and work," the private utility said.

FortisBC noted that in December 2023 it provided a $50,000 donation to the Invasive Mussel Defence Program and donated $250,000 per year over the four-year period from 2017-2021.

The BCWF says it has sent letters to the federal government, FortisBC and BC Hydro on the issue.

*this story has been updated to include comment from FortisBC

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