Businesses, lake users fear ‘knee-jerk’ action by Parks Canada to combat zebra mussels

As ice continues its spring thaw in many parts of the country and boaters and paddlers gear up to hit the water, an invasive species that’s been slowly making its way westward across Canada for nearly four decades threatens to end the boating season before it even begins in Riding Mountain National Park.

Parks Canada notified the Manitoba government it is considering banning boats, canoes and kayaks on Clear Lake this year to combat zebra mussels, which were reportedly found at a boat launch there in last November. It’s the furthest west they’ve been found in Canada to date.

Water testing was done in over 74 per cent of the lake over the winter and didn’t detect zebra mussel DNA. But Parks Canada — and a zebra mussel researcher — say it doesn’t mean they’re not there.

Many who live and work in the area, three hours northwest of Winnipeg, say this is the time to beef up prevention and monitoring with checkpoints and decontamination stations to stop people from taking vessels into the water without proof it’s been cleaned, drained and dried.

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Volunteers raking and shoveling zebra mussel shells on Lester Beach. Marney Blunt / Global News

“The rumblings of a complete watercraft ban are a bit of a knee-jerk reaction and we are asking for a look at a long-term solution,” says Karly McRae, a lifelong Clear Lake user and owner of Lakehouse Properties, a boutique hotel in Wasagaming.

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“It’s critically important for Parks Canada to engage in a public consultation on this issue to hear from all stakeholders in the area.”

Parks Canada insists that’s happening. In an email to Global News, a spokesperson said they’ve “engaged with more than 500 individuals and organizations, including First Nations leaders and Elders, other levels of government, representatives from the local and provincial tourism industry, other businesses, environmental NGOs, volunteer organizations, anglers, boaters, as well as cottage and cabin owners.”

Manitoba Natural Resources Minister Jamie Moses has said a boat ban would harm tourism, the economy and enjoyment of the national park.

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Parks Canada insists no decision has been made and “any comment to the contrary is misinformed and rest assured, once decisions are taken, the next steps will be widely communicated.”

But communication after a decision is what critics don’t want.

Ashley Smith is a member of the Gambler First Nation, whose ancestors lived, hunted and fished in the area for generations before it was a made a national park.

She says she spent two years battling through bureaucratic red tape to open Turtle Village last year, an eco-tourism business in the park which could be negatively impacted if folks aren’t able to use the lake.

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“We don’t have direct communication with Parks (Canada) unfortunately,” Smith said “As the only Indigenous tourism operator, I should be consulted.”

Parks Canada has a partnership with seven First Nations whose traditional territory spans the park. It unclear how their fishing rights would be impacted if a boat ban happens.

The devastation of zebra mussels 

Scott Higgins is a scientist formerly with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and currently with the International Institute for Sustainable Development working at the Experimental Lakes. His research includes zebra mussels.

He explains the mollusks came to Canadian waters from the Black Sea in the late 1980s, presumably on cargo ships, and quickly infected the Great Lakes as ships moved from port to port. They spread through waterways in northeastern U.S. and eventually got into the Red River system then began their northward journey to Manitoba.

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Zebra mussels infestation at a Manitoba Hydro generating station. Manitoba Hydro

They were first confirmed in the province in 2013 in Lake Winnipeg, believed to have hitched a on watercraft that had been in infected waters, and have since spread as far as the mouth of Hudson Bay.

“Once the horse gets out of the barn, it gets more challenging to contain them,” says Higgins.

“It’s amazing how much they can change a whole ecosystem,” Higgins said, as they have no natural predators and harm native mussels.

Higgins says shocking the boat launch at Clear Lake where they were reported in November could kill them.

“Our recommendation would be to limit boats or restrict them until they’ve done the treatment and have some degree of certainty they’ve eradicated the mussels, then reassess.

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“Short-term pain is probably worth it in the long term because if they get established they’re there for good.”

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