Protecting BC waters from aquatic aliens

Lynsey Kitching 
 
With all the fresh water in Canada, the Canadian and Provincial governments are implementing deterrents to people wanting to bring in foreign aquatic species into the country that could prove detrimental to our natural eco-systems.
 
The main species currently being targeted are the snakehead fish (which has been sighted in both a Burnaby lagoon as well as potentially Lake Erie in Ontario) and the zebra or quagga mussels.
 
These species are being brought into countries typically either through live-fish markets, or in the case of the mussels, as hitchhikers on boats or boating equipment.
 
The snakehead fish was featured on a recent episode of River Monsters, a documentary series hosted by Jeremy Wade, a biologist from the UK. During the program he explains how the snakehead fish has become known as a very invasive species of fish, starting in the state of Florida and has been slowly working its way north. 
 
The snakehead is an extremely aggressive fish, which is capable of staying alive outside of the water for at most four days at a time, due to a unique respiratory system, which allows it to breathe oxygen.
 
The snakeheads originate in Africa, Asia and Russia and are apparently a delicious fish to eat. The fish was also the focus of a few Hollywood horror movies, when it was first being discovered in North America.
 
Biologists say there are 36 different types of snakehead fish.
 
A release from the BC government states, “The BC government has strengthened the regulation, acting on a previous commitment to ban the snakehead fish. All public comments received on the government’s policy paper supported strong action on this issue.”
 
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations says, “Currently, none of these aquatic invasive species have been reported to be present in the Peace Region. The risk of these types of species being introduced to bodies of freshwater in the Peace Region is lower than in southern areas of the province. Southern watersheds are typically closer to established invasive species populations [e.g. zebra and quagga mussel populations in the western US] and have a higher occurrence of live fish markets. However, the risk of an invasive species introduction in the Peace Region is still present and such an introduction could pose a threat to regional fisheries.”
 
The snakehead was discovered in a Burnaby lagoon this past summer. There have been no reported sightings of snakeheads in the Peace Region. However, one species of snakehead, the northern snakehead would likely be capable of surviving in this area if released into the wild.
 
The amendment to the Controlled Alien Species regulation is specifically designed to minimize such risks and it prohibits the possession, breeding, release or transport of high-risk aquatic species such as the snakehead.
 
These changes come about three years after similar changes were made in Ontario to protect the great lakes.
 
The penalties associated with breeding or releasing for a first time offender are fines ranging from $2,500 to a maximum of $250,000; a term of imprisonment not exceeding two years; or both a fine and a sentence.

The second focal-group of the new regulations are the zebra and quagga mussels.
 
Although there is also no indication that zebra mussels and quagga mussels have been introduced into the Peace Region, they could survive at the elevation and latitude. The Lower Peace ecological drainage unit was assessed as a “high suitability” area for zebra and quagga mussels (based on calcium levels needed for shell development) in 2011.
 
It is quite conceivable that a boat transported from the western US (where zebra and quagga mussels are already established) could inadvertently introduce live specimens to northern BC, since the mussels can attach themselves to boats, trailers and other boating equipment. Larval mussels can also be transported in bilge systems, live wells, hoses and cooling intakes.
 
The quagga mussel was first observed in North America in September 1989 when it was discovered in Lake Erie near Port Colborne, Ont. It was not identified as a distinct species until 1991.
 
Quaggas are considered invasive because they alter the food web. They are prodigious water filterers, and remove substantial amounts of phytoplankton and suspended particulate from the water. Because of this, quaggas in turn decrease the food source for zooplankton.
 
The new invasive species regulations in BC states, “That no invasive zebra or quagga mussel, alive or dead, be present on boats or related equipment. Failure to clean mussels off boats or equipment could result in a fine of up to $100,000.”
 
Until now, the controlled alien species regulation has been used to control the possession, breeding, shipping and releasing of animals that are not native to BC, such as tigers, that pose a serious risk to the health or safety of people.
 
Many neighbouring Canadian and US jurisdictions have similar restrictions on aquatic invasive species as these recently announced in BC.
 
There are roughly 1,200 species on the Controlled Alien Species list.
 
Conservation Officers and constables have the authority to seize or destroy Controlled Alien Species. Typically, this would occur where there are strong reasons to do so, for example where the animal presents an immediate threat to the health or safety of a person.
 
A conservation officer or constable may seize a Controlled Alien Species if the person in possession of the animal does not have a possession permit, contravenes any condition of their permit, or contravenes any aspect of the Controlled Alien Species Regulation.
 
The regulations also cover other potentially harmful aquatic species such as Asian carp.
 
The economic costs associated with the presence of the named species could be considerable. If these species become established in an area, eradication programs would be prohibitively expensive.
 
Terry Lake, Minister of Environment says, “The impact of the snakehead and zebra mussel in other jurisdictions has been devastating to those local ecosystems. These regulations are an important step in preventing these invasive species gaining a foothold in BC.”
 
The Invasive Species Council of BC has taken the lead on delivering the “Clean, Drain and Dry” program in BC, which is designed to reduce the risk of boaters inadvertently moving invasive aquatic “hitchhiker” species from lake to lake. 
 
Recognize and report invasives. If you see an aquatic plant, fish, or other organism that looks out of place, report it to 1-888-WEEDSBC.
 
For more information visit www.bcinvasives.ca/you-can-help/prevention-tips#Boaters