Conservation Canines Are Sniffing Out Zebra and Quagga Mussels Infesting Waters Across the U.S. and Canada
They're only about the size of your fingernail, but they're a scourge of mammoth proportions. Zebra and quagga mussels are tiny mollusks that have spread from their accidental introduction to the Great Lakes in the 1980s to plague water bodies from coast to coast.
The invasive mussels move quickly to cover any hard surface they come in contact with, from boat hulls to water intake pipes, causing much financial damage. Their sharp shells litter shorelines, creating hazards on beaches. But the most serious consequence of their introduction is the damage they cause to ecosystems. These mussels compete directly with fish and other aquatic organisms for food, disrupting the natural food web and ecological balance of a water bodyan imbalance frequently resulting in nasty algal blooms.
Can they be stopped before they attack every lake and river in North America? If two black labs and a German Shepherd have anything to say about ityes.
Jamie: “Hilo” is a spunky young black lab mix, and he’s on a mission. Wearing a bright orange vest the one-year-old pup is intently working his way around a 20-foot boat parked on a trailer at a roadside checkpoint.
Frani: As his handler cheers him on, he sticks his nose in nooks and crannies, sniffing the prop, the bilge, the hullevery inch of this boat that would come in contact with water.
Jamie: What's he looking for? Narcotics? Illegal ivory tusks? Other types of contraband?
Frani: Nope. None of those. He's intent on finding his targetzebra and quagga musselsinvasive species overtaking freshwater bodies all across the U.S. and Canada. If he finds what he’s looking for, he’ll stop in his tracks.
Cindy: Our dogs display what's called a “passive alert.”
Jamie: That’s Cindy Sawchuk, Hilo’s handler and Aquatic Invasive Species Operations Lead with the Government of Alberta, Canada.
Cindy: When he’s doing his search pattern if he detects the odor that he’s trained to find, which is invasive mussels, he’ll sit down. Then as a handler, I’ll ask him to pinpoint exactly where he found it so he’ll point to it with his nose and then I’ll verify and I’ll look and then he’ll get a reward which is a ball.
Frani: We're with Cindy and her team at a weigh station in Medicine Hat, Alberta about 2 hours north of the Montana border on the busy Trans-Canada Highway. The east-west route moves many an outdoor enthusiast and their watercraft to the plentiful rivers and lakes in the countryand potentiallycarrying with them aquatic hitchhikers.
Jamie: To that end, Cindy and her department are taking no chances at letting this menace muscle its way into the province.
Frani: It's mandatory that anyone pulling watercraftfrom sailboats to stand-up paddle boardsstop to be inspected. If you don't the Royal Canadian Mounted Police will nicely "invite” you back to be checked becauseafter all this is Canada where their reputation for politeness is world famous.
Jamie: But that attitude might change if you contaminate their lakes and rivers which are currently mussel-free. Zebra and quagga mussels are a problem of immense proportionsfrom infesting all of the Great Lakes to water bodies as far west as Lake Mead on the Colorado Rivera plague for which there is no current solution.
Cindy: These mussels are pretty devastating should they be introduced into the Province of Alberta. What they do is they attach to any hard surface. They don’t have any natural predators so they completely overtake the ecosystem. It’s a really big concern for us in Alberta because we have over 8,000 kilometers of buried pipes and canals used for agriculture. These conveyance send water to things like rural communities, thousands of residents, industrial facilities, not to mention irrigation, our wetlands...
Frani: The tiny creaturesabout the size of a fingernailwere brought to North America in the 1980s though ballast water discharged by cargo ships from the Black Sea. They survive by sucking up huge amounts of phytoplankton, the basis of the food chain.
Jamie: And they breed quicklyone female can produce more than a million eggs in a single year to create massive colonies that completely overtake lake bottoms.
Frani: As another boater arrives the wind off the Alberta plains picks up. The team greets the driver to explain the inspection that only takes 10 minutes or so. Motorists have been overwhelmingly positive about the programa mixture of surprise and giddiness.
Jesse: So we do have the canines here that do the inspections.
Motorist: Like a dog? Any he actually smells the little mussels? Isn’t that something!
Jamie: The dogs are great ambassadors to raise awareness about the seriousness of the problem of invasive mussels, but they’re also a huge asset in being able to search areas a human might miss like under the boat or in bilge pipes, plus dogs can help inspect boats that come through at night when it would be harder for a human to see.
Frani: And all they ask for in return? A toy.
Aimee: This idea of using a dog that really wants a toy. He doesn’t care about the thing he’s finding. There’s no dog bred to find mussels. Instead we can kind of do this bait-and-switch and say if you find this thing that is of no inherent value to you, you get this thing that is really valuable to you.
Jamie: That’s Aimee Hurt, co-founder of the nonprofit “Working Dogs for Conservation.” They trained the dogs and handlers now working in Alberta.
Aimee: I’m here to support the three new dog handler teams. We did a two-week training academy in California. That was really a whirlwind of information where the handlers are literally meeting their dogs for the first time and learning how scent works and seeing how dogs are trained to scent and they have to learn search strategy and learn just to contend with these high-drive, crazy dogs.
Jamie: Is there a particular breed that makes for a good sniffer dog?
Aimee: There’s not a specific breed that does a better job at this. We like to get most of our dogs from shelters or rescue organization. The dogs are all really toy-crazy so that’s the first thing and the easiest thing we can look for in the shelter. All dogs posses the ability to smell mussels. They’re actually a kind of stinky target. So we don’t need some dog that renown for excellent sense of smell. Do they really want that toy? Do they want to work with a person? Do they have a good work ethic? Able to drive up to a site and pop out of the car and get going with all sorts of distractions that are around.
Frani: And so now it’s go timetime to test that work ethic. Here at the checkpoint there’s idling trucks, a new environment and the public who get out of their vehicles to watch them workquite different than training camp which was isolated and full of repetition and routine.
Jamie: In the training, dogs frequently found mussels that were planted on the boats in order to learn the odor. At this inspection station, not so much. In the two months they’ve been out here the dogs have inspected 7,000 boats and intercepted only seven contaminated ones.
Frani: While that’s good for Alberta, as it indicates that mussels are not yet in the areait gets a little dull for the dogs.
Jamie: Given that, Aimee and Cindy decide to ask a motorist if, once their boat gets an all-clear they could plant a mussel to demonstrate that the dogs really can do this work. The driver is more than willing to help.
Cindy: Why don’t you put your car in park and hop out and watch?
Jamie: So you’re going to plant this on the boat?
Cindy: Mhmm, I’m going to put it in the bilge where the water would drain out. We'll see what Wicket has to say about it.
Frani: Wicket begins her search as the crowd watches. She zigs and zags smelling and sniffing all around the boat sometimes jumping up on it with her protective booties so she doesn’t scratch it.
Cindy: YAY! Everybody clap! Good girl!
Jamie: Wicket successfully found the mussel. If this hadn’t been a drill and a real critter had been found, the boat would have been searched again and then decontaminated in a hot power wash.
Motorist: It’s amazing what dogs can smell. My wife was just reading on how quickly they spread.
Bailey: Oh yes, it takes one. There's your proof of inspection. Just make sure you keep that with the truck. Thank you, sir!
Frani: With that, the driver’s off. Smiling faces and wagging tails show that dogs are not only keen scouts, but public relations superstars. 💧
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