Okanagan Water Board urges feds to support invasive mussel prevention while there’s time

Kelowna, B.C. – Syilx Territory – The Okanagan Basin Water Board (OBWB) has learned that the federal government may be cutting funds which support invasive mussel inspections in B.C., despite recently learning that the threat of these mussels is now closer than ever to the still mussel-free province.  In response, the board has sent a letter to the Ministers of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, Environment and Climate Change, and Public Safety, Democratic Institutions and Intergovernmental Affairs, and straight to the Prime Minister’s office.

“This is critical, we are going right to the top,” explained Water Board Chair Sue McKortoff. “After all the decades of work done by the Okanagan Nation Alliance and partners to bring the salmon back, it would be a crime to see the salmon population collapse because we failed to protect our freshwater ecosystem from invasive zebra and quagga mussels when we still had a chance. This would ruin an important food source to local First Nations, as well as everything else that depends on the salmon, including birds, bears, orca.”

The letter, sent today and cc’d to B.C.’s MPs, MLAs, Assembly of First Nations, chambers and more, calls for immediate, long-term federal funding assistance for the Province of B.C. to support invasive zebra and quagga mussel prevention efforts. “The Government of Canada should provide funds to at least match provincial government efforts across the West, or plan for significant higher management costs in the near future,” the letter states. 

In its letter to the federal government, the OBWB notes the Government of Canada’s announcement in May 2023 of a Canada Water Agency which included a budget of $750 mill. with $420 mill. to address water concerns in the Great Lakes, but none for aquatic invasive species protection in the west.

“Has the federal government given up on us?” questioned OBWB Executive Director Anna Warwick Sears. “Have they accepted defeat before we’ve even had an infestation here? That’s what it feels like.”

“We appreciate there’s a Canada Water Agency, but they’re pouring money into remediation for the Great Lakes without protecting the still pristine waters in the west,” she added. “The government has identified the Fraser River as a priority watershed. Regardless of what they do in the Okanagan, they should be true to their word and prioritize funds for the Fraser River. By protecting the Fraser, they will help protect the rest of the province.”

The OBWB has been stepping up its calls for action after last September’s announcement of quagga mussels in the Idaho’s Snake River, a tributary to the Columbia River which connects to the Okanagan, and only an 11-hour drive to the B.C. and Alberta border. The closest infestation prior to this finding was in Manitoba. Idaho’s desperate response was to spread more than 116,000 litres of toxic copper chelate into the river, killing almost seven tonnes of fish, and poisoning a 26 km stretch of the river. “Wholesale killing of fish, invertebrates, amphibians, and plants in the river was considered better than letting these mussels take hold” the board writes, adding the effectiveness won’t be known until this spring. 

In October, the OBWB began calling for a temporary moratorium on watercraft coming into B.C. until results from Idaho’s efforts are known and the Province of B.C. has closed any gaps in its Invasive Mussel Defence Program. Support for the moratorium has been gathering steam with letters coming in from B.C. municipalities, chambers of commerce, the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association, and others.

Between May and December 2023, B.C.’s Invasive Mussel Defence Program intercepted 155 watercraft on their way into B.C. that were identified as high-risk for the mussels; 79 were decontaminated; 36 were quarantined. Fourteen were confirmed to have invasive mussels. A recent B.C. government economic impact report states an invasive mussel infestation would cost the province $64 to $129 mill. annually. However, in reviewing the report, the OBWB has said the costs would be higher since the report leaves out harder-to-define costs, including impact to fisheries and quality of life.

For its part, the OBWB’s Okanagan WaterWise outreach and education program has been running the “Don’t Move A Mussel” campaign since 2013, raising awareness about the threat of the mussels and how to keep them out of the Okanagan. It also provides funding to the Okanagan and Similkameen Invasive Species Society to conduct outreach to boaters and the public. The Water Board is also developing a mussel vulnerability guide for local governments, water purveyors, and other industrial users that rely on in-water infrastructure.

Please find the OBWB’s letter to the federal government below.

For more information on zebra and quagga mussels, the risks to the Okanagan, and how to prevent their spread, please visit www.DontMoveAMussel.ca.

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