By Steve Hubrecht 

[email protected] 

The Lake Windermere Ambassadors (LWA) last week added their voice to that of the Okanagan Basin Water Board (OBWB) and the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce in calling on federal and provincial officials for an immediate-but-temporary moratorium to stop out-of-province watercraft from coming into British Columbia.

In a letter sent on Wednesday, April 10 to Canadian Minister of Transport Pablo Rodriguez and B.C. Minister of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship Nathan Cullen from Ambassadors chair Taoya Schaefer and vice-chair Shannon Nickerson, the group pointed to two discoveries last year —  of invasive mussels in Idaho, and the parasite causing whirling disease in Yoho National Park. 

To stop the spread of these potentially devastating invasive species the Ambassadors asked for a temporary moratorium on out-of-province watercraft entering B.C.; introduction of ‘pull-the-plug’ (on bilgewater) legislation prior to the 2024 boating season; direction from Canada’s Minister for Public Safety that all watercraft entering Canada at border crossings be inspected prior to allowing entry; and a $4 million funding commitment to the Invasive Mussel Defence Program (IMDP).

“There are a lot of invasive species that have been found and reported around us in the last 12 to 18 months. Thankfully none specifically in our area yet, but both (invasive mussels and whirling disease) are spreading and are all around us,” Nickerson told the Pioneer.

Over the past few months the Pioneer has run several news stories about whirling disease, which has extremely high mortality rates among iconic native fish species such as Kokanee salmon, westslope cutthroat trout and mountain whitefish and which is almost impossible to eradicate. But having quagga mussels in Idaho’s Snake River — a tributary of the Columbia River — is also “a very big alarm,’ said Nickerson.

Quagga and zebra mussels are native to the Black Sea area in Europe and Asia, but made their way across the Atlantic to the Great Lakes area 30 years ago, with pronounced economic, environmental and recreational impacts. Both mussels have since slowly spread westward across the continent. 

The Columbia River watershed is one of the last major drainages in the Pacific Northwest to have so far been unscathed. Last summer’s quagga discovery sent Idaho officials spending $3 million to try to kill off any quagga in a 16-mile stretch of the Snake River. Testing this spring should reveal if that worked. If it didn’t, the species could spread throughout the Columbia.

The spread of quagga or zebra mussels can be explosive. “They just come and coat everything,” explained Nickerson. They clog water intake pipes and screens, and hamper water treatment plants. They can coat docks, buoys, breakwaters, boat bottoms, and even beaches. And they also impact plankton and other food for aquatic species, altering freshwater ecosystems.

“It’s very bad environmentally. But it’s also really bad economically,” said Nickerson. “The cost of attempting to restore a system that has a mussel invasion is in the billions of dollars . . . it could have a big impact here in the Columbia headwaters because we do have drinking water intakes on Lake Windermere.”

Photo by Peter Secan on Unsplash

Last November concerns about quagga mussels and other invasive species prompted the OBWB to call for a temporary moratorium on out-of-province boats. The Kelowna Chamber of Commerce joined in, sending a letter to provincial and federal officials in February, also calling for an out-of-province boat moratorium.

Nickerson said the letter from the Ambassadors is a duplicate of the OBWB’s and Kelowna Chamber of Commerce’s. The Ambassadors are echoing the call from those groups “to strengthen the ask,” she said.

Given that boating season has already begun in the Columbia Valley, the economic importance of the tourism industry year, and the large number of out-of-province visitors and second homeowners here, Nickerson conceded that the Ambassadors are asking a lot. She did, however, point out that potential consequences of not doing anything could be high.

In their letter the Ambassadors said that “between May and December 2023, the IMDP intercepted 155 watercraft entering B.C. that were identified as high-risk for invasive mussels; 14 were confirmed to be carriers. 

“Lake Windermere is located at the headwaters of the mighty Columbia River system and each summer we see upwards of 1,300 boats on our small lake. Many come from our neighbouring province of Alberta – where there is no watercraft inspection station along the way,” said Nickerson. 

The group called for IMDP staffing to be returned to 2019 levels, and asked that officials update the provincial Early Detection, Rapid Response plan; create a long-term response, containment, and control planning process; and promote aquatic invasive species vulnerability assessments.

At least one local official, however, sounded a note of caution in response to the Ambassadors’s call for the watercraft moratorium.

“I certainly understand their (the Ambassadors) concern, and I am definitely in favour of checking boats and making sure there is nothing harmful coming in with them . . . but to just say ‘no’ to all out-of-province boats, I have an issue with that. I don’t think that will go over very well,” said Invermere Mayor Al Miller. “Tourism is a big part of our economy here. Preventing out-of-province boats from entering sends the wrong message. We could have some valley residents travel somewhere, pick up an invasive species and bring it back, and that would be just as bad as out-of-province boats bringing it in. What we need to do is to check all boats. Then we are being fair to all.”