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Another Invasive Threat for Florida

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Florida hopes to stop a zebra invasion!

Not the four-legged kind but rather the invasive zebra mussels, a longtime problem in freshwater bodies from all the Great Lakes to inland rivers and small lakes in many states across the country. It’s believed these small but prolific mollusks are eyeballing the Sunshine State.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is calling on the public for help in stopping the spread. This species could cause devastating impacts to the ecology of Florida’s freshwater lakes and has recently been discovered in a Florida pet store, according to FWC officials.

What is a zebra mussel? It’s a fingernail-sized mollusk with dark zig-zagged stripes on each shell. Native to the lakes of southern Russia and Ukraine, it’s believed they first invaded the Great Lakes in the 1980s via ballast water discharged by large ships from Europe that reach the Great Lakes through the St. Lawrence Seaway. Within 10 years, zebras spread throughout the entire region and into the rivers of the eastern Mississippi drainage.

Today, densities of over 700,000 individual mussels per square meter exist in Great Lakes areas, wreaking havoc on the ecosystem in many ways. They filter out algae and starve native mussel species to death when they attach to and incapacitate them.

But they create even bigger problems. Called the "most troublesome freshwater biofouling organism in North America" by U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, they clog pipelines used for water filtration. Power plants and municipal water systems spend millions annually removing zebra mussels from clogged water intakes.

In the Midwest they have also caused damage to boat ramps and docks. They can attach to boat hulls, block intakes for such features as heads, live wells, raw water washdowns and, worst of all, engine cooling intakes.

Finally, the waste they produce can even accumulate and degrade the marine environment, using up oxygen, making the water acidic, and producing toxic byproducts.

The FWC reports zebra mussels and their microscopic larvae have been found in a species of aquarium plants known as moss balls. These are being sold in some pet stores under a variety of names. The moss balls are up to a few inches in diameter and are sold separately as an aquarium plant or may be provided when a fish is purchased. The larvae might not be noticeable in the aquarium material, so any purchased moss balls can contain zebra mussels or their larvae, according to FWC.

Accordingly, pet stores are being called on to remove all moss ball aquarium plant products from their shelves and properly dispose of them and aquarium owners that have already bought moss balls are being urged to safely dispose of it. The safest way to do this is by completely drying, freezing, or placing the moss balls into a plastic zipper bag. Then throw that bag into a garbage bag.

The aquarium’s water should then be disinfected prior to disposal by adding one cup of bleach per gallon and allowing it to sit for 10 minutes before pouring the water down the drain. Aquarium water can then be replaced along with filters/cartridges which also should be disinfected before disposal.

When considering Florida, most people think about the Atlantic on the east coast and the Gulf of Mexico on the west. But Florida is also a state rich in freshwater inland lakes that provide excellent boating and fishing. In fact, many central Florida lakes are dubbed bass-fishing’s Nirvana, and fittingly account for excellent boat sales, too. The introduction of zebra mussels won’t help to keep things this way.

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