Zebra mussels and a related species, quagga mussels, are fingernail-sized, black-and-white striped bivalve mollusks native to the Caspian Sea region of Asia.
They came to North American waters in international shipping ballast water and were discovered in Lake St. Clair near Detroit in 1988. Since then, zebra mussels have spread rapidly throughout the Great Lakes and connected waterways of the Mississippi River, including the Arkansas, Illinois, Ohio and Tennessee rivers.
Zebra mussels were first reported in Missouri in 1991 in the Mississippi River. For eight years, they were not found west of the Mississippi in our state. In spring 1999, however, zebra mussels were reported in the Missouri River near Sioux City, Iowa. In August 1999, zebra mussels were found in the lower Meramec River, a Mississippi River tributary south of St. Louis.
It's suspected that commercial barges originating from the Mississippi River, transported attached adult zebra mussels upstream to these previously un-infested areas. During the next several decades, zebra mussels could spread to other freshwater locations in Missouri and throughout North America.
Zebra mussel prevention tips
To prevent the spread of zebra mussels throughout Missouri and North America--and to keep your own equipment from being fouled--please observe the following "clean boating" suggestions when transporting your boat from waterway to waterway.
If you are a water recreationist (boater, angler, water-skier, scuba-diver, sailor or canoeist) you can prevent the transport of zebra mussels and other harmful exotic species from one lake or river to another. In some states and provinces it is illegal to transport harmful exotic species.
Thoroughly inspect your boat's hull, drive unit, trim plates, trolling plates, prop guards, transducers, centerboards, rollers, axles, anchor, anchor rope and trailer. Scrape off and trash any suspected mussels, however small. Remove all water weeds hanging from the boat or trailer before leaving any water body.
Drain water from the motor, livewell, bilge and transom wells and any other water from your boat and equipment while on land before leaving any water body.
Trash leftover bait on land, away from water, before leaving any water body. Leftover live aquatic bait that has contacted infested waters should not be taken to uninfested waters.
When you get home — before launching your boat into uninfested waters — thoroughly rinse and dry the hull, drive unit, livewells (and livewell pumping system), bilge, trailer, bait buckets, engine cooling system and other boat parts that got wet while in infested waters; use a hard spray from a garden hose.
If your boat was in infested waters for a long period of time, or if you find any attached adult mussels, use HOT (140 F) water instead of cold, or tow the boat through a do-it-yourself carwash and use the high pressure hot water to "de-mussel" your boat. Do not use chlorine bleach or other environmentally unsound washing solutions.
Boats, motors and trailers should be allowed to dry thoroughly in the sun for at least five days before boating again.
In the Slip
In infested waters, the best way to keep a hull mussel-free is to run the boat frequently (small juvenile mussels are quite soft and are scoured off the hull at high speeds).
On boats which remain in the water, zebra mussels can attach to drive units, cover or enter water intakes, and clog, overheat and destroy the engine.
If possible, leave outboards or outdrives in the up position. Periodically inspect hulls and drive units, and scrape free of mussels. Pump hot water through your engine's intake on a regular basis to prevent mussel growth inside the engine's cooling system.
Any aquarium containing moss balls infected with zebra mussels also has the potential of having zebra mussel larvae (called veligers) in its water. When aquarium water is switched out or if the contents get dumped into a nearby creek or lake, this could introduce zebra mussels into a new body of water.
If you find zebra mussels in your aquarium, remember these three words – destroy, dispose, drain.
- Freeze: Place moss ball into a sealable plastic bag and freeze for at least 24 hours.
- Boil: Place the moss ball in boiling water for at least one minute.
- Bleach/vinegar: Submerge the moss ball in a chlorine bleach solution at a rate of one (1) cup of bleach per gallon of water for 10 minutes or undiluted white vinegar for 20 minutes.
Once one of the above-listed “destroy” steps have been taken, dispose of the moss ball and any of its packaging in a sealed plastic bag in the trash. If vinegar, boiling water, or bleach was used, the liquid can be disposed down a household drain. Never pour into a storm drain where it could enter and damage local waterways.
Drain and clean the aquarium. When draining and cleaning your aquarium, it’s important to follow these steps:
- Collect any fish or other living organisms and place them in another container, with water from a separate, uncontaminated source.
- Remove contaminated water from the tank and sterilize the water by adding one (1) cup of salt for each gallon of water. Let the saltwater solution sit for 10 minutes and then dispose the treated water by pouring down a household drain.
- Decontaminate the aquarium and accessories using one of the following methods, ensuring that the method you choose is in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations:
- Hot Water Method: Flush and coat the aquarium and all accessories with hot water that is 120 degrees F for at least two minutes. After two minutes, allow the water to cool and then dispose in household drain.
- Saltwater Method: Add one-half (1/2) cup of salt per gallon of water to tank and soak aquarium, substrate, rocks, décor, and filter media for at least 24 hours. Dispose of the treated water by pouring down a household drain and rinse all items prior to resetting up your aquarium.
- Bleach Disinfection Method: Make a disinfection solution using one (1) cup of bleach per gallon of water. Soak the aquarium, substrate, rocks, décor, and filter media in the bleach water solution for at least 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, treated water can disposed of by pouring down a household drain. Rinse off all items prior to setting up the aquarium. Dispose of the previously used filter media and replace it with new media.
- Once the decontamination steps are completed, allow tank and accessories to dry for at least 15 minutes before refilling with water. If the bleach disinfection method (see above) was used, add a dechlorinating product to neutralize any residual chlorine prior to reintroducing aquatic life.
- It is recommended that aquarium owners do another water change within a week and continue to monitor the tank for any unusual or unexpected aquatic life. If needed repeat the above-listed steps.
Learn more about how to take care of zebra mussel-infected moss balls and aquarium systems from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Rapid reproducers coat surfaces, clog pipes and smother native species
Female zebra mussels can produce as many as 1 million eggs per year. These develop into microscopic free-swimming larvae (veligers) that quickly begin to form shells. At about three weeks, the sand-grain-sized larvae start to settle, and by using their byssal threads, attach to any firm surface. They clump together and cover rock, metal, rubber, wood, docks, boat hulls, native mussels, crayfish and even aquatic plants.
Zebra mussels filter plankton from the surrounding water. Each mussel can filter about 1 quart of water per day. However, not all of what they remove is eaten.
What they don't eat is combined with mucus as "pseudo-feces" and discharged onto the lake bottom where it accumulates. This material, which may benefit bottom feeders, also may reduce the plankton food chain for upper water species. Diving ducks, the freshwater drum and other fish eat zebra mussels, but will not control them.
Economic impact expected to be in the billions
Zebra mussels can clog power plants, industrial and public drinking water intakes, foul boat hulls, decimate populations of native freshwater mussels, impact fisheries and disrupt aquatic ecosystems. Economic impacts of zebra mussels in North America during the next decade are expected to be in the billions of dollars.
Overland transport on boats, motors, trailers and aquatic plants poses one of the greatest risk for spreading zebra mussels. Larger adult zebra mussels can live several days out of water in moist, shaded areas.
Boats that have been moored or stored for more than just a day or two in zebra mussel-infested waters may carry "hitchhiking" mussels attached to their hulls, engine drive units and anchor chains. Boats that have been in infested waters for only a day or two are less likely to transport adult zebra mussels.
Microscopic zebra mussel veligers can survive in boat bilge water, livewells, bait buckets and engine-cooling water systems, regardless of how long the boat has been in infested waters.
However, they will die very quickly when their hiding places are warmed in the sun or when they "blow dry" on the highway on the trip home.
Identify the Enemy
Learn what these organisms look like (at least those you can see). If you suspect a new infestation of an exotic plant or animal, report it to your natural resource agency.
Consult the agency for recommendations and permits before you try to control or eradicate an exotic "pest."
Remember, exotic "pest" species thrive on disturbance. Do-it-yourself control treatments often make matters worse and can harm native species.
Where to look for zebra mussels
- Bait bucket
- Recreational watercraft
- Moss balls in aquariums
For more information or to report a zebra mussel sighting, contact your local MDC office or write:
Missouri Department of Conservation
PO Box 180
Jefferson City, MO 65102-0180
Several Missouri Stream Teams already are helping by monitoring streams for zebra mussels. If you would like to join the effort, call (800) 781-1989 or visit the Stream Team website at www.mostreamteam.org.