Wandering the West
Last year at the Bear Lake Marina, boaters pulling in to launch sometimes faced friendly questioning from a team of park rangers and volunteers wanting to know where boat owners had previously launched their boats. High-pressure hoses and chemical tanks stood at the ready for the wrong answer. Anyone saying "Lake Mead," "Red Fleet" "Sand Hollow" or "Electric Lake" or dozens more Western waters faced a thorough boat bath in Utah’s battle against quagga and zebra mussels. The little clam-shelled creatures are just a half-inch long or so, but they’re prolific breeders. One adult can produce a million offspring in a lifetime.
The two mussel species started showing up in the West in Lake Mead in Arizona and Nevada. They glom onto hard surfaces like boat bottoms, propellers, water-intake pipes, piers, and rocks. The shells are razor sharp, and the fact that they pile up fast leads to ruined boat motors and clogged water intakes at hydro plants and pipelines. You’d think smart minds could come up with something to stop them, but the little devils are running amok in Lake Mead.
When Lake Mead boaters drop their boats in other waters, mussels can let go and colonize other water bodies. Electric Lake near Price and Red Fleet Reservoir near Vernal had small infestations recently, a half dozen lakes in Colorado now have them, and their range is spreading from the Great Lakes where they first appeared. They’re some kind of native European pest, but got into the Great Lakes through ballast water discharges of ocean-going ships.
They can kill motors and power plants, slice your feet like a Veg-o-Matic, and pollute the water with their clam crap. They’re about as evil as critters get. But there are other critters invading Utah too. In Sunday’s paper came news that Flaming Gorge’s population of kokanee salmon is now infected with whirling disease. A tiny parasite in the water infects juvenile salmon and trout and can deform the spines of the fish, causing them to "whirl," or swim in circles. The potential consequence of whirling disease in Flaming Gorge is that the parasites will get downstream below the dam, where the Green River is a blue-ribbon trout fishery known far and wide among fly fishers. Whirling disease has shut down state fish hatcheries and caused millions of dollars of damage and damaged fisheries elsewhere in Utah and the West.
Anglers themselves are sometimes the guilty parties in spreading unwanted species in Utah fisheries. Using live chub minnows leads to their escape, clogging waters with adult chubs that force out all other fish life. In 1990 Utah spent millions of dollars to poison all of the huge Strawberry Reservoir 23 miles east of Heber City to get rid of chubs and other "trash" fish that were crowding out the game fish. Other Utah anglers who like fishing for walleyes artificially stock them in waters that are walleye-free. The aggressive, hungry walleye soon eat all the trout minnows and another fishery bites the dust.
Between zebra mussels, illegal transplants of walleye and other species, whirling-disease parasites and quagga mussels, Utah’s fisheries face some serious threats. When a friendly ranger questions you about where your boat has been, be honest. And if its hull has touched certain waters, especially Lake Mead, by all means get the chemical bath that may be strongly suggested.
What Utah needs is some invincible creature that lives on mussels, parasites and walleye. Then let’s hope that creature doesn’t grow legs and come after us.
Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren makes the West his beat. He’s been traveling its backloads and telling its stories since landing in Park City in the 1970s. He is the general manager of KPCW.
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