Rep. Mary Dye: Washington is facing its worst-ever ecological disaster from a tiny mussel

Back in February 2020, I met Puddles, Washington state’s first mussel detection dog, and her handler, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Sgt. Pam Taylor. A rescue dog from a shelter in California, Puddles, a Jack Russell terrier mix, was brought to Washington state in 2019 and trained to sniff out zebra and quagga mussels.

The mussels are smaller than a thimble. In 2020, while working the boat check station on the Washington-Idaho border near Spokane, Puddles discovered invasive mussels on a boat from Arizona. The boat had been decontaminated at three previous Montana and Idaho decontamination sites, and mussels removed before Puddles’ nose was able to detect what human eyes had missed — tiny mussels hidden behind part of the boat’s sonar system. Without Puddles, these mussels could have easily found their way into Washington’s waters.

Quagga and zebra mussels are native to Russia and arrived in the United States aboard ships that released ballast water into the Great Lakes. Some 40 years later, everything underwater in the Great Lakes has changed. The mollusks now stretch across the bottom of Lake Michigan from shore to shore, piling on top of each other. They attach themselves to solid surfaces and have altered the Great Lakes’ ecology, filtering out food that many fish need to survive, and fueling algae growth. They are hearty, prolific creatures, difficult to kill, and nearly impossible to control. The sharp nature of their shells poses a threat to fish, particularly salmon. They have no natural predators. One single fingernail-sized mussel can produce one million offspring annually. Once in a new ecosystem, they fill intake pipes, irrigation lines, salmon ladders, boat areas, dam operations, clogging screens, water management systems, and fish hatcheries.

Zebra and quagga mussels have since made their way to Nevada and California. Officials say the only large Western river basin not yet infested is the Columbia River.

Imagine the devastation to our salmon population, our dams, and irrigation systems if this invasive species finds its way into Washington’s rivers, lakes, streams, and estuaries! Conservative estimates suggest an invasive mussel invasion in Washington would easily destroy our salmon population and other native fish, and cost hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Yet, it may be a matter of time.

Last September, quagga mussel larvae were detected in the Snake River near Twin Falls, Idaho. To stem the invasion, Idaho officials spent nearly $3 million chemically treating a 16-mile section of the Snake River. And yet, Idaho won’t know until this spring whether it wiped out the mussels. Remember, this is the same river that runs through our four Lower Snake River dams in Washington and empties downstream into the Columbia River at the Tri-Cities.

That’s why I am seeking a proviso in this year’s supplemental operating budget of $1.8 million for monitoring and prevention efforts. We need detailed inspections, monitoring, education, and outreach. We also need more mussel-detecting dogs, like Fin in Spokane, to be trained to do what Puddles did before she retired last year. Plus, we need more extensive planning and prevention efforts now with our tribes, Canadian officials, and our border states.

Little attention has been given to the threat this invasive species poses to Washington. If just one of these tiny mollusks attaches itself to a Washington boat or makes its way through the Snake River to the mighty Columbia, it could potentially become the worst ecological disaster in our state. That’s why we must refocus our efforts now to prevent these invasive creatures from “musselling” into and permanently destroying Washington’s waters.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, is the ranking Republican on the House Environment and Energy Committee and represents the 9th Legislative District.

State Representative Mary Dye, 9th Legislative District
432 John L. O'Brien Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(360) 786-7942 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000