A devastating invasive species is spreading westward across Canada, threatening millions in damage to ecosystems, infrastructure and tourism economies. 

Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park is on the frontline.

But with concerns over the province’s ability to hold the line against the tiny zebra mussels wreaking havoc on lakes and waterways across the continent, western provinces are fortifying their borders against likely culprits in transmission: canoes, speedboats, paddleboards and other recreational watercraft.

There are mandatory boat inspection and decontamination stations on the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border, and more throughout Alberta and British Columbia. 

​​In B.C., any boat launched in Manitoba waters in the past 30 days is considered high risk. In Alberta and B.C., roving inspectors set up checkpoints on high-traffic highways; some are equipped with dogs trained to sniff out evidence of aquatic invasives.

Inspection stations are a key tool in Western Canada’s defence against zebra mussels — an invasive, fingernail-sized shellfish that costs the country $7 billion in prevention, control and management every year. 

Since zebra mussels were detected in the Great Lakes in the mid-1980s, they have become widespread in Ontario, Quebec, and 34 states. 

They were first detected in Manitoba in 2013, and have since spread from the southern reaches of the Red River to the Hudson Bay, taking hold in the province’s two largest lakes and clogging hydroelectric stations along the Nelson River. 

As rumblings of zebra mussel DNA in Riding Mountain National Park’s Clear Lake emerged in early 2023, concern over the province’s western waterways — most of which are mussel-free — began to build. 

Map of North America showing red dots where zebra mussels have been spotted, concentrated in the east but starting to appear in the west as well

Clear Lake has just one outflow: a small creek flowing into the Little Saskatchewan River when water levels are high. The Little Saskatchewan connects to the Assiniboine River just west of Brandon, which stretches across southern Manitoba until it joins the Red River in downtown Winnipeg. 

If mussels take hold there, everything from drinking water and irrigation infrastructure to recreational water use could be impacted for dozens of communities.

But when Premier Wab Kinew pushed back on the idea of banning boats on Clear Lake this spring, some wondered what the province planned to do instead. 

Manitoba is known as the land of 100,000 lakes. With cash-strapped provincial budgets across the west, some worry there aren’t enough resources to keep the mussels from spreading throughout Manitoba’s abundance of lakes, rivers and creeks — or even further west.

Preventing the spread of zebra mussels has relied mostly on regulations and education campaigns

Across North America, preventing the spread of aquatic invasive species has so far relied on regulations and public education campaigns that encourage boaters to clean, drain, dry and sometimes decontaminate their watercraft. 

That’s because controlling the spread of aquatic invasive species like zebra mussels largely depends on regulating human behaviour, according to Scott Higgins, a research scientist at the International Institute for Sustainable Development’s Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario.

Mussels aren’t good swimmers. Their microscopic larvae can float along currents, but adult mussels spend their lives attached to hard surfaces including boats, docks and underwater plants. The only way they move from waterway to waterway is with human help, mostly by stowing away on boats, trailers and other equipment. 

Higgins says educational efforts are important: “What we hope is that people take it on themselves to do the right thing,” he says. 

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But alongside education, many provinces have introduced enforcement in the form of boat inspections and fines.

Ontario, which is already widely mussel-infested, doesn’t have mandatory checkpoints. But the province introduced laws in 2022, including fines up to $350, mandating boaters clean and dry their equipment before launching in new waters. In 2018, Manitoba introduced a set-fine list including a $672 fine for failing to attend an inspection station.

B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba issue fines ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars for failing to stop at inspection points along highways and borders. 

A growing threat of zebra mussels has meant growing investment in the fight to stop them

Manitoba’s zebra mussel monitoring program started in 2011. It’s come a long way. Back then, a team of two summer students checked boats at high-traffic border crossings on weekends. 

When zebra mussels were detected in the basin of Lake Winnipeg in 2013, the province progressively escalated its efforts. New laws in 2015 allowed enforcement officers to issue tickets to boaters; the following year, the province nearly doubled the budget for the invasive species program to $1 million, with most earmarked for six inspection stations.

A cluster of zebra mussels with a watery background
Adult zebra mussels can’t travel far on their own. They attach themselves to hard surfaces in the aquatic environment. Photo: NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory / Flickr

As mussels and other invasive species continued to spread, the province implemented what it dubbed “control zones,” where invasive species are already established or are expected to pop up soon. Any boat that has been in a control-zone must be decontaminated before moving elsewhere.

Across Western Canada, provinces have been bolstering their budgets to stop zebra mussels from taking hold.

​​Alberta announced $2.5 million this year to bolster its aquatic invasive species response, including two new inspection stations (for a total of seven), a mobile inspection crew, a new canine unit and 15 additional staff for the 2024 season.

“Boating season hasn’t even started and we’ve already intercepted two boats carrying invasive mussels into Alberta this year,” Environment and Protected Areas Minister Rebecca Schulz said in a press release.

In B.C., new partnerships with BC Hydro and conservation organizations aim to strengthen invasive mussel defence.

Both provinces have said the growing threat of zebra mussels requires more federal support. B.C. cut four inspection stations and dozens of staff as funding from federal and private partners dwindled from 2019 peaks. 

A dog sniffs the underside of a boat, inspecting it for zebra mussels
In B.C., specially trained dogs sniff out zebra mussels at boat inspection stations. Photo: Government of BC / Flickr

Both have also asked the federal government to conduct mandatory inspections at U.S. border crossings, currently done by provinces. 

And in recent years, a new tool has emerged in the fight against zebra mussels: banning boats from some lakes altogether.

Closing one lake means more boats on another: water protection group president

When Parks Canada announced Clear Lake would indeed close to boaters for the 2024 summer season, surrounding lakes began bracing for more visitors — and more risk.

Daryl Kines is president of the non-profit Sandy Lake Water Protection Working Group, which works to protect a small, L-shaped lake 20 minutes down the highway from Riding Mountain National Park. 

“The march of aquatic invasive species is coming closer to where I live,” he said in an interview. “It’s very concerning.”

Since 2018, the group has run its own inspection station. Kines said it inspects about 1,500 boats between July and September and typically finds about five to 10 high-risk watercraft. But the group does not have the ability to decontaminate infested boats.

He has asked the government for independent or municipally owned decontamination stations in underserved areas and strict rules for high-risk boats.

While Kines thinks Manitoba has some of the best laws overseeing aquatic invasive species in the country, he is concerned “the province has not been enforcing the law very often.”

Despite good intentions, fears budgets can constrain action

In 2023, the province inspected more than 8,200 boats (down from more than 20,000 inspections in 2020), decontaminated more than 1,300 and issued 72 warnings and 26 charges for violations.

Last year, the province added two new inspection stations near Minnedosa and Ste. Rose du Lac, on the west side of the province, in hopes of catching more infested boats. 

Three people stand next to a sign announcing a mandatory zebra mussel inspection station for all watercraft
Zebra mussels already cost Canada $7 billion every year. B.C. estimates the cost of an infestation could reach more than $120 million. Photo: Province of British Columbia / Flickr

Riding Mountain MLA Greg Nesbitt, the Progressive Conservative environment critic, has been asking the province to open new inspection stations and test water bodies downstream of Clear Lake since last fall. 

Asked repeatedly whether progress had been made, Economic Development, Investment, Trade and Natural Resources Minister Jamie Moses told the legislature “zebra mussels and aquatic invasive species are a serious issue” and cited a $500,000 increase to aquatic invasive species funding included in this year’s budget. 

According to a statement from an unnamed provincial spokesperson, that money will go towards expanding the inspection program to nine stations this year. “We know that the spread of zebra mussels can happen quickly, and that’s why we want to increase our support for preventing the spread of zebra mussels across Manitoba,” Moses said in an interview. 

To Kines, Manitoba’s aquatic invasive species team deserves credit: he said they’re knowledgeable and want to enact some of the suggestions he and other lake groups have put forward.

But he worries their hands are tied. They may want to take action, he said, “​​but their budgets are such that they can’t.”

Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?
We’ve got big plans for 2024
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

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