Invasive zebra and quagga mussels: An emerging threat to Okanagan fisheries
A sunny day in early spring; I find myself relaxing, bobbing on the lake and all of a sudden the sound of a reel running with the weight of a fish makes my pulse race with anticipation. Fishing is an important part of the Okanagan’s culture, sense of place and economy. Invasive mussels found in neighbouring water bodies to the south and east of British Columbia are a clear and present danger, placing our fisheries and quality of life at risk. The Okanagan valley, located in the semi-desert region of south-central British Columbia, is a largely undiscovered fishing mecca. The current opportunities to fish for native kokanee, lake trout and rainbow trout and introduced species including small and large mouth bass provide excellent freshwater fishing opportunities. In British Columbia, freshwater sport fishing had an estimated total direct economic impact of $546 million. Closer to home, in the Okanagan fishing is estimated to contribute $21.5 million toward the gross domestic product.
The Okanagan fishery is becoming even more globally and locally significant with the recent re-introduction of sockeye salmon. This renewed salmon run connects our valley bottom lakes (Osoyoos, Vaseaux, and Skaha) to the Columbia River and ultimately to the Pacific Ocean unseen for a generation. The reintroduction of sockeye is an exciting development and a direct result of the leadership and dedication by the Okanagan Nation Alliance Fisheries Department and other senior levels of government partners. This year marks the 4th public fishery on Osoyoos Lake with an anticipated return of over 900,000 sockeye. The returning sockeye swimming up the mighty Columbia River past nine hydroelectric dams returning to their birthplace is an amazing story of biology, culture and leadership. Over 80% of all returning sockeye traveling up the Columbia are ‘desert salmon’ returning to spawn in the Okanagan. A recent economic analysis undertaken collaboratively by the Okanagan Nation Alliance Fishery Department and the Okanagan Basin Water Board looked at the ecosystem service values associated with Okanagan sockeye and habitat; identifying the salmon-related importance and value to range from $2.6 – $3.5 billion not including the important cultural, health and nutrition values that are difficult to quantify.
Any introduction of invasive mussels into Okanagan waters is a game changer. Many communities throughout eastern and southern North America have witnessed first-hand the devastating impacts of introduced mussels, namely quagga and zebra mussels. Okanagan valley bottom lakes including: Kalamalka, Okanagan, Skaha and Osoyoos have the temperature and water chemistry ideal for invasive mussels to thrive in. A recent economic study pegged the annual impact of invasive mussels introduced into the Okanagan on BC tax payers at over $42 million. Alberta estimates the cost of an invasive-mussel infestation in that province would be $75 million a year. With one female mussel able to produce a million offspring each year, Alberta is taking it seriously. Last year Alberta invested approximately $500 thousand establishing inspections station on four major routes entering that province along its south and east borders. Last year’s investment in Alberta resulted in the identification of eight mussel-infected boats, all headed for Calgary and Edmonton area. In contrast, here in BC we spent $20 thousand last year. In light of this serious risk to our lakes and waterways, we need to invest in a made-in-BC strategy protecting our lakes and fisheries and decontamination stations to identify, stop and clean infected boats.
As responsible boaters, guides and community members who love fishing, awareness of the mussel invasion and taking every precaution to protect our beloved lakes requires a community effort – all hands on deck. As boaters and fishers we can be proactive and responsibly practice “clean, drain, dry’ when our boats are in infested waters, and ensure that visitors to our lakes adhere to the same level of due diligence. To learn more about what you can do to prevent the spread of invasive mussels and help keep our waters free from infestation by these foreign mussels visit: www.dontmoveamussel.ca.
As a community of boaters and fishers, keeping our valued Okanagan waters free from invasive mussels today and for future generations is priceless. We have a lot to gain by applying best practices in order to keep our Okanagan lakes free of quagga and zebra mussels. Be informed. Be pro-active.
Nelson Jatel, MA, PAg
Water Stewardship Director for the OBWB and
owner/guide for Desert Salmon™ Charters
 2013. Freshwater Fisheries Society of BC. BC Freshwater Sport Fishing Economic Impact Report. Web source: http://www.gofishbc.com/docs/default-source/economic-analysis/2013_bc_freshwater_sport_fishing_economic_impact_report.pdf?sfvrsn=2
2009. p5. Freshwater Fisheries Society of BC. Freshwater Sport Fishing in British Columbia. Web source: http://fraservalleyanglingguides.com/resources/freshwater%20fishing_s%20economic%20impact.pdf
2013. ECONorthwest. Economic Analysis in the Okanagan Basin: The Importance and value of an unchannelized section of the Okanagan river. Web source: http://www.obwb.ca/projects/economic-analysis/
 2013. Heather Laratt (Larratt Aquatic). Limiting the spread of aquatic invasive species into the Okanagan. Web source: http://www.obwb.ca/fileadmin/docs/2013_obwb_ais_report.pdf