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Aquatic Disaster Averted


Tue Apr 19 00:00:00 MDT 2005

Zebra mussles on a stick. A zebra mussel looks like a small clam with a D-shaped shell. Usually it has alternating dark and light stripes, is the size of a fingernail and is found attached to hard surfaces like clusters. Young zebra mussles look like black pepper and feel like sandpaper when attached to a boat surface.

Zebra Mussel

A potential environmental disaster was quietly averted in the Gallatin Valley recently.  But it provided a stern lesson in how easily our waters in much of Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota could have been changed for the worse – forever. 

The threat was zebra mussels.  The solution was hot water, bleach, a bottle brush, power washer and, most importantly, the smarts to know there was a problem in the first place. 

The tale begins with Ed Roe, an avid angler from Amsterdam and board member for the local Walleyes Unlimited chapter, and his search for a new boat for his family. 

“I bought a boat on the Internet off Boats.Com.  It was a really good deal,” Roe said Tuesday.  “The marina selling it was in St. Joseph, Mich., on Lake Michigan and the St. Joe River.  I’m from Michigan so I figured I’d go back and visit some relatives and pick up this boat.” 

When Roe arrived in Michigan, the 18-foot Lund was everything he hoped it would be.  The 2002 model year boat was almost spotless.  The price was good.  But he did spot something. 

“I’m talking to the salesman,” he continued.  “And we’re standing by the back of the boat and I say,  ‘What is this?’  In the intake for the livewells, there’s something in there.  I take out my Leatherman and scoop it out and here are all these zebra mussels.  They’re just white shells. 

“The salesman tells me, ‘They’re just zebra mussels.  They’re in all the waters around here.  The  guy just left his boat in the lake for the summer.’,” Roe recalled. 

Zebra mussels are what they call an invasive species or an aquatic nuisance species.  First introduced into the Great Lakes in the ballast water of a single commercial ship that traveled the Black Sea, they have also invaded the inland waters of the Great Lakes states and spread westward as far as the Missouri River below Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota.

In places where they’ve established themselves, zebra mussels have been an environmental disaster.  They attach themselves to everything, including native mollusks and crayfish.  They clog commercial water intakes, attach themselves to boat hulls and even get inside the water intakes of motors.  They filter feed and consume vast amounts of food that would otherwise support insect life and larval fish. 

If they had gotten into Canyon Ferry Reservoir, one of Roe’s popular fishing waters, they would likely spread down the Missouri River drainage through Fort Peck, Sakakawea and Oahe and affect all the other rivers that feed the Missouri, including the Yellowstone. 

Luckily, Roe spotted the problem.  One of Roe’s friends is Bruce Rich, the regional fisheries manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Bozeman.  And Rich called in Eileen Ryce, FWP’s Aquatic Nuisance Species Coordinator. 

“When I got there, he had removed them from the intake pipe on the livewell,” Ryce said.  “I looked the boat over and saw more on the bracket (tilt and trim and mounting bracket) of the motor, in the sheltered areas where they wouldn’t have gotten knocked off by anything.  Two or three clusters of them were in there.  Also, there was some water left in the bilge and in the live wells.” 

Ryce said that immature zebra mussels can be very small – no bigger than a sesame seed.  Sometimes, you just feel them.

Here’s what Ryce recommended and what Roe did to clean up his new boat and make it safe for Montana waters. 

“Hot water power washing is the best for the outside of the boat and trailer,” Ryce said.  “And you rinse the livewells and bilge out with a weak bleach solution – five percent bleach, which is one part in 20 – one cup of bleach to five quarts of water.  The thing I was most concerned about was the livewells.  Out of water, the zebra mussels clam up and can go without water for a long time.  In ideal conditions, for days or weeks.” 

The lesson for Roe was that it’s incredibly easy to innocently bring zebra mussels into the state.  And with the number of used boats purchased from out-of-state sources and the number of out-of-state boaters that come to Montana to fish our waters, everyone needs to be a lot more vigilant to head off a zebra mussel disaster. 

You can learn more about aquatic nuisance species and their threat to Montana on the Walleyes Unlimited web site, Aquatic Nuisance Species.

Mark Henckel is the outdoor editor of The Billings Gazette. His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be contacted at 657-1395 or at

Copyright, 2005, The Billings Gazette.  This article was previously published at and is republished with permission of the Billings Gazette.