Invasive species need to be on Legislative agenda

With invasive green crabs entering Puget Sound from the north and invasive mussels discovered in Montana to the east, the Legislature will be called on to make some critical funding decisions to ward off potential invaders.

Zebra mussels cover a native mussel in the Great Lakes. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Zebra mussels cover a native mussel in the Great Lakes. // Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Green crabs and freshwater zebra and quagga mussels are not the only aquatic invasive species of concern. As I described in a story published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, state officials worry about the potential import of all sorts of harmful species via ballast water and the hulls of vessels.

To fully address the threats through prevention and enforcement, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates that $5.2 million per year is needed. That would move Washington ahead of Oregon and Idaho in addressing the problems. Each of those states spent about $1.3 million in 2014, while California spent about $10.7 million. Washington’s current budget for dealing with aquatic invasive species is one of the lowest in the country at $900,000 a year.

Increases in the program would be phased in over six years, increasing from $900,000 a year in the current budget to $2.3 million in the next biennium, according to a proposal to be submitted to the Legislature. It would go to $4.7 million five years from now.

The money would be used to:

  • Increase boat inspections and mandatory check stations,
  • Investigate more locations for the invasion of zebra and quagga mussels,
  • Boost training for the Washington State Patrol and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol,
  • Improve inspections and technical assistance for ship operators, and
  • Offer grants to local government and tribes for addressing local problems.

The 2015 Legislature commissioned an advisory committee to look at how to fund an expansion of the state’s Aquatic Invasive Species Program. The committee’s report recommended maintaining the $2 surcharge for boater registrations while creating new fees for seaplanes, nonmotorized watercraft, out-of-state boaters and some classes of commercial vessels. (A proposal for charging nonmotorized watercraft has been deferred for further study.)

Caught in a crab trap on San Juan Island were these animals — including the first European green crab ever found in Puget Sound. Photo: Photo Craig Staude, courtesy of Washington Sea Grant
Caught in a crab trap on San Juan Island in August were these animals — including the first European green crab ever found in Puget Sound.
Photo: Photo Craig Staude, courtesy of Washington Sea Grant

A major source of funding for expanding the program could be a small portion of the existing public utility tax on electrical service. A rate increase is not proposed, but the committee reasoned that power generation costs would go up significantly if zebra or quagga mussels were to invade hydroelectric facilities. The added revenue would be phased in over six years.

For years, experts have understood that some invasive species — including the green crab along with zebra and quagga mussels — pose an economic threat to this state. If they become established here, green crabs could have a devastating effect on the shellfish industry in Puget Sound. The invasive freshwater mussels are notorious at clogging water-intake pipes and destroying shoreline habitat.

With both of these threats now at this state’s doorstep, the Legislature will have the opportunity to understand these problems and begin work on solutions.

In August, the first green crab in Puget Sound was found in the San Juan Islands. Within a month, four others were caught in nearby Padilla Bay. State officials, working with Washington Sea Grant, are scrambling to find money to launch an extensive trapping program starting in April. The idea is to identify where green crabs are getting a foothold and to begin reducing their numbers.

Last year’s early-surveillance program was conducted by Sea Grant with funding from the Environmental Protection Agency. Now interim funding is needed to deploy crab traps next year in Padilla Bay and the San Juans and to continue volunteer surveillance throughout Puget Sound. Any money provided by the Legislature would not be available until July.

With the risk of a green crab invasion greater than ever, Sea Grant’s Kate Litle said her organization is committed to continuing the volunteer surveillance program, but additional funding is needed to start the trapping on time next spring.

Another effort is to use computer models to determine how free-floating crab larvae may be reaching Puget Sound. Some people suspect that the crab larvae are coming from Vancouver Island, where significant numbers of green crabs have been found. One idea is to work with Canadian officials to trap enough crabs to reduce the ongoing risk to Puget Sound.

Meanwhile, finding zebra or quagga mussels as far west as Montana is now raising alarm bells across the western states and Canadian provinces.

“It is a significant issue, and people are very, very concerned,” said Allen Pleuse, coordinator of the state’s Aquatic Invasive Species Program.

Last month, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock declared an invasive species emergency after the larvae of aquatic mussels were found in the Tiber Reservoir in northern Montana, along with possible detections at Canyon Ferry Lake some 200 miles to the south. Check out the story by reporter Karl Puckett of the Great Falls Tribune.

Officials are awaiting test results to confirm the findings at Canyon Ferry Lake and to identify the species of mussels at both locations. Dogs have been used to search for adult mussels without finding any so far. (See reporter Weston Williams’ piece in the Christian Science Monitor.) In the spring, when the mussels begin spawning, further tests will be conducted on waters throughout the region.

In earlier events around the country, mussel larvae have been detected one time without a repeat detection, Allen told me. In some cases, the mussels never became established. Of course, that’s what everyone hopes will happen this time.

The program proposed to the Washington Legislature would increase inspections of boats moving on the highway from one place to another, with a special focus on boats coming from infested areas. State dollars can match federal funding to address invasive species efforts.

Another educational campaign being planned is to make people aware of dangerous invasive species released from aquariums.

Meanwhile, some members of Congress continue to propose legislation that would block state regulations dealing with ballast water on cargo ships. I mentioned the concern in Water Ways last July, when some lawmakers tried to attach the legislation to the National Defense Authorization Act. That effort failed, but so far the parties on all sides of the issue have been unable to work out a compromise.

The greatest concern for Washington state is that ballast water taken from a highly infested area, such as San Francisco Bay, could be dumped into Puget Sound without control or treatment. Currently, state rules require ships from California to travel offshore to exchange their ballast water, thus reducing the risk.

The Coast Guard recently certified the first treatment system to be used in place of exchanging ballast water. The Coast Guard has been allowing the use of some systems approved by foreign governments, but experts have questioned whether some of those systems work effectively.

As more treatment systems come into service and invasive species move closer to Puget Sound, this state’s Aquatic Invasive Species Program will be needed to help battle the unwelcome invaders.

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