More work needed to keep Washington’s waters clear of aquatic invasive species

In the natural resources field, we generally think that fish, snails, mussels and other critters are pretty cool. But there are a couple we don’t like; that we don’t even want in our state. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is the lead agency for statewide management of aquatic invasive animal species (AIS); non-native organisms that invade ecosystems beyond their natural historic range. In Washington, zebra and quagga mussels are the biggest aquatic invasive species threat, followed by European green crab and northern pike; but there are many others.

Invasive zebra mussels encrust the propeller of a boat motor.

Washington’s aquatic invasive species threats
Nationally, invasive species cause hundreds of billions of dollars in economic and environmental damage while seriously impacting human use of natural resources. For instance, quagga and zebra mussels are known for devastating water-dependent industries like agriculture, hydropower, and municipal drinking water supplies. To date, the Columbia River basin is the last major watershed in the U.S. that is not infested by invasive freshwater mussels.

A European green crab removed from a trap in Puget Sound waters.

European green crab threaten the harvest of wild and commercially grown shellfish, the Dungeness crab fishery, and salmon recovery (and by extension, threatens orca recovery), all of which negatively impact human uses and cultural resources of the Salish Sea and outer coast. Significant detections of green crabs in Drayton Harbor, Lummi Bay, and along the coast required immediate actions to prevent establishment in the Salish Sea and control of existing coastal populations.

In areas where European green crab have been able to establish reproducing populations, they have had dramatic impacts on eelgrass that is critical habitat for Dungeness crab and juvenile salmon, and survive on species such as juvenile crab, clams, mussels, and small oysters. While European green crab cannot crack the shell of a mature oyster, they can prey upon the young. One European green crab can consume 40 half-inch clams a day, as well as other crabs its own size.

A female northern pike removed from Lake Roosevelt. Females can have thousands of eggs.

Northern pike are a non-native, highly invasive predator fish that is established in Box Canyon Reservoir on the Pend Oreille River in northeast Washington. They are a serious threat to other fish species, including downstream into the Columbia River. Northern pike are now less than 55 miles from the portion of the Columbia that supports anadromous fish, which includes 13 species of threatened or endangered salmon and steelhead, a $12 million annual fishing industry, and hundreds of millions of dollars invested annually in salmon steelhead recovery by the Bonneville Power Administration and other partners.

Currently, WDFW joins other agencies, groups, and Tribes each year in operations to remove northern pike from the Pend Oreille River, Lake Roosevelt, and Lake Spokane. Those efforts have grown each year but WDFW is out of resources to increase their involvement any further.

It is a major ongoing challenge keeping these non-natives species controlled; especially because Washington has a large number of water bodies, including:

Each of these bodies of water cross multiple state, federal, international, and tribal jurisdictions. Effective management requires a broad integrated management approach with tribal co-managers, state and federal agencies, shellfish growers, local governments, other western states, Canada, and other non-government groups.

Tools to fight aquatic invasive species
Preventing AIS from coming into the state through human pathways is our first line of defense and primary tool. Other important tools used for AIS management include early detection, rapid response, and control/eradication.

Staff at the Spokane boat check station speak with a boat owner in 2019.

To keep zebra and quagga mussels out, WDFW runs two boat check stations- in Spokane and Pasco- looking for invasive organisms attached to vessels, such as zebra and quagga mussels and aquatic plants. In 2020, check station staff detected more boats than ever fouled with aquatic invasive species. Crews inspected over 32,000 boats at the two stations; almost one-third of which came from waters in other states known for AIS infestations. Pasco is the state’s primary intercept point for watercraft coming out of Lake Powell, Havasu, Mojave and the lower Colorado River system; all waters with mussel infestations. Boat checks at WDFW stations in 2020 revealed 25 vessels with invasive mussels.

“Each year we find more boats with invasive mussels and other aquatic invasive species coming into the state,” said Captain Eric Anderson, WDFW’s aquatic invasive species enforcement manager. “These mussels adhere to pretty much any hard surface. In some areas they have destroyed boat engines, fouled beaches, and damaged boat ramps and docks. If invasive mussels take hold in Washington, it’s estimated it would cost more than $100 million each year to keep the power and water infrastructure running, besides the potentially catastrophic ecological damage that could occur.”

Eurasion milfoil

In addition, in 2020 WDFW staff decontaminated 632 watercraft of invasive aquatic plants (such as Eurasion watermilfoil, variable leaf milfoil, and Hydrilla; plants that crowd out native plants and reduce habitat quality for fish, waterfowl, and other wildlife) and 168 with standing water in some part of the boat; 112 of which were last on waters known to be infested. Standing water is a threat because non-native species can “hitchhike” into our water bodies in water left in boat chambers that haven’t been drained.

Because we can’t stop every boater or pathway of introduction, WDFW has developed a comprehensive early detection monitoring system for numerous species including zebra and quagga mussels, European green crab, northern pike, New Zealand mudsnails, and more. In 2020, staff from WDFW partnered with entities including Washington Sea Grant, Chelan PUD, Douglas PUD, Grant PUD, and numerous Tribes to conduct almost 5,000 surveys of water bodies, looking for these species.

WDFW staff tests a water body for aquatic invasive species.

When early detection finds AIS, WDFW implements rapid response actions to quickly assess the scope of the infestation and then applies tools including containment and control/eradication to limit their impact on the state’s aquatic resources and infrastructure. Rapid response involves setting up a formal or informal Incident Command System to bring together affected jurisdictions and resources to fight the infestation. Successful rapid response requires extensive training with personnel, knowledge of permitting processes, and hands-on experience with response tools such as containment barriers and traps.

“When we invest in a full spectrum of AIS management, we’re able to avoid new problems and eliminate or minimize the impact of AIS on Washington’s waters,” said Allen Pleus, WDFW Aquatic Invasive Species Unit manager. “It’s far easier and less expensive to prevent these invaders from establishing than to get rid of them once they take hold. Good AIS management means we don’t have to close waterways to recreation, spend hundreds of millions to deal with their impacts, or watch our native plants and animals get pushed out.”

Limited AIS Resources
With efforts to fight non-native species increasing out of necessity each year, WDFW’s limited resources to do this are stretched extremely thin. Much of the current funding for the program comes from grants, and approximately $200,000 a year from an annual recreational watercraft registration fee, along with the aquatic invasive species prevention permit fee on watercraft registered out-of-state. Funds raised by these fees have been shrinking in recent years and do not provide adequate funding to fight invasive species.

“It’s a challenge that we know what we need to do to keep the state safe from species that could effectively ruin our waterways, but don’t have the resources to do so,” said Allen Pleus, Aquatic Invasive Species Unit manager for WDFW.

For example, Washington spends a minimal amount on zebra and quagga mussel efforts as compared to other western states. Out of the four Pacific Northwest States that make up the Columbia River Basin, Washington has 80% of the river within its boundaries, has the most at stake, and yet has the lowest funded aquatic invasive species boat inspection program and just two boat check stations. That’s compared to:

2021–2023 Funding Request
While past analysis recommended a budget of $10.4 million per biennium to fully fund activities under the aquatic invasive species program in Washington, WDFW is requesting $2.8 million to cover essential baseline prevention and enforcement costs in the upcoming state budget cycle. This is a reduced ask for this biennium in recognition of the state’s economic situation under the global pandemic. This funding would pay for permanent staffing across multiple levels and maintaining key infrastructure, while providing match money to apply for state and federal grants. Washington’s lack of ability to provide matching funds has significantly impacted our regional defense strategy for AIS prevention and early detection.

“It will take all of us — boat owners, people who recreate on the water and all levels of government — to be vigilant and make sure we are doing our part to clean our boats, vehicles, and gear,” said Justin Bush, executive coordinator of the Washington Invasive Species Council. “Preventative efforts require continued support and more resources so we can take action in more parts of the state.”

Increased funding benefits
Additional funding would provide an effective base aquatic invasive species program that will benefit citizens and taxpayers by reducing damage and maintenance costs for native ecosystems, fish, and wildlife resources; protect agriculture, shellfish, forestry, fisheries, and outdoor recreation businesses from unchecked non-native species; and prevent the spread of species, diseases, and parasites that could affect human health.

The national Outdoor Industry Association recently estimated the outdoor economy in Washington state alone at $26.2 billion in consumer spending, 201,000 jobs, and $7.6 billion in wages and salaries. A significant portion of Washington’s outdoor industry is associated with our extensive marine and freshwater resources used for recreational and commercial purposes and could be devastated by an infestation of invasive species.

“More than five years ago, the council recognized that the Department of Fish and Wildlife AIS program was underfunded,” continued Bush. “Stakeholders and user groups, such as irrigators and boaters, from across Washington came together to determine what adequate funding and service should be. There was consensus that increased investment should be made to protect our important resources and way of life. If you share these values, follow simple practices to avoid moving invasive species, and educate your friends and, neighbors about this important issue.”

The decontamination station in Ephrata, Washington.

How you can help- Clean, drain, dry your boat
When leaving the water, clean all equipment that touched the water, remove all visible plants, algae, animals, and mud. This includes watercraft hulls, trailers, shoes, waders, life vests, engines, and other gear.

Pull your boat’s drain plug or otherwise drain water from watercraft or gear, including live wells and bilge, before leaving the water access area. Once home, let all gear dry fully before using it in a different water body.

More aquatic invasive species information
For more information on aquatic invasive species in Washington, visit the WDFW website. For more information on all invasive species in Washington, visit the Washington Invasive Species Council website.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.