Originally Published by the National Post, June 22, 2015

By Alexandra Zabjek

EDMONTON – The discovery of dinner plate-sized goldfish and the ongoing threat of a zebra mussel infestation has the Alberta government ramping up awareness of invasive aquatic species in provincial water bodies.

The zebra mussel, which multiplies prodigiously and can clog water pipes, has been the “poster child” for invasive aquatic species. But seemingly mundane creatures can cause problems, too.

“The mussels really scare the crap out of everyone — biologists because of the environmental impacts. And the irrigation industry, the hydropower industry, the waste water treatment industry all potentially have a lot to lose,” said Kate Wilson, an aquatic invasive species specialist with Alberta Environment and Parks.

“It’s a big, scary thing to really engage the public. I’m hoping to use that to get people to think about how … people are dumping their goldfish, which is pretty serious for a whole lot of other reasons.”

Wilson recounted the story of a fisheries biologist who last year saw two children fishing in a Fort McMurray stormwater pond. The biologist discovered they had caught two goldfish, and the municipality then hired a consultant to study the pond.

“They removed 40 goldfish from that one pond and they were finding four different age classes, which suggests they’re breeding in the wild … The smallest one was the size of half your pinky and the biggest one was the size of a dinner plate,” Wilson said.

Goldfish remain small in a contained environment but can grow exponentially when removed. It’s not yet known what their impact on native habitats and fish will be if they continue to thrive.

The province will launch a “Don’t Let it Loose” campaign this summer, targeting pet shops, aquarium stores and live food markets that sell specialty fish. People will be reminded not to release the fish into the natural environment. Meanwhile, the federal government just expanded its list of prohibited species to curb the spread of invasive aquatic plants and animals that damage the environment, economy or human health.

Alberta is the only jurisdiction in North America where a small, silver fish called the Prussian carp has been spotted in nature. Wilson estimates hundreds of thousands of the fish exist in southern Alberta.

Thousands of Prussian carp were removed from the Western Irrigation District canal in 2014. The fish are considered an invasive species in Alberta and the fish currently number in the hundreds of thousands in southern Alberta.

The sheer numbers are alarming, Wilson said. People have regularly been found fishing for the carp in urban locations.

Biologists have two theories on how the fish were introduced: they could have been part of a batch of “feeder fish” sold in aquariums, or they could have been deliberately introduced to new environments by people who want to fish them.

Invasive plants also pose risks to water bodies.

“We’re concerned because (invasive species) could really change our lakes for the worst. They could turn them into wetlands, fill in bays,” said Erin MacFarlane Dyer, who heads the Alberta Lake Management Society. “We have to do everything we can to protect our water systems. They’re pretty fragile up here.”

But nothing matches the threat of zebra mussels and, what Wilson describes as their “evil cousin,” the quagga mussel. The mussels have wreaked havoc in Ontario lakes and the eastern United States since the late 1980s and have more recently been found in the southwestern United States and Lake Winnipeg.

The province this summer implemented mandatory checks for all boats passing any of the 13 inspection stations on Alberta highways. Inspectors look for the mussels and have the right to quarantine or decontaminate boats.

Alberta has been somewhat shielded from a mussel infestation because of similar inspection protocols that have been in place for years in states such as Idaho and Montana, Wilson said.

Boaters from Alberta are keenly aware of the potential problem, said Wayne Lowry, president of the Alberta Fish and Game Association.

Inspections take time but “they’d rather go through the process than have the invasive species here in Alberta. I’d hate to be the guy who had one tagging along on my boat,” Lowry said.