GAINESVILLE -- State officials made the first confirmed sighting of thenon-native zebra mussel, a meddlesome mollusk that a University of Floridascientist says can displace native aquatic life and cause billions ofdollars of structural damage.
During a routine inspection of a bait-and-tackle shop in Eustis, officialsdiscovered the mussels, believed to have been transported from LakeChamplain in New York. They confiscated and destroyed the mussels andexpect no infestation from that source, said Marion Clarke, a professorwith UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Zebra mussels are thumbnail-size bivalves with black and white stripesthat first arrived in North America in 1986 in the bilge water of Russianfreighters. They have wreaked environmental and economic havoc throughoutthe Great Lakes states and have worked their way down the Mississippi Riveras far as New Orleans, Clarke said.
"The zebra mussels pose an alarming threat because they are very prolificreproducers," Clarke said, "and they have no natural predators to helpcontrol their numbers."
The mussels are the only freshwater mollusk that attach themselves tosolid objects. Once established, zebra mussels clog up intakes pipes, waterlines and pumps, forcing costly cleaning programs, said Clarke, anassistant dean with the Florida Sea Grant Program.
"Zebra mussels will clog up everything," he said. "They're found in pipesof power plants, water treatment plants and even in the irrigation systemsat golf courses. Industrial operations in the Great Lakes states have spentmillions of dollars in clean-up."
Adult zebra mussels, which can live 10 to 15 days out of water, attachthemselves to boat hulls, trailers or outboard motors. During the larvalstage, a zebra mussel is free-floating and almost invisible, making it easyfor them to be transported from a contaminated source.
"Our biggest concern is that someone will unknowingly trailer them intoFlorida on a boat from one of the states where the waters are alreadyinfested," Clarke said. "You could even find the mussels in bait buckets,live wells and other type of water-related gear such as fishing poles orsnorkeling equipment."
The zebra mussel also is a threat to native freshwater mussel and clamspecies and other aquatic animals. They filter out so much algae, Clarkesaid, that they starve native species, interrupt the food chain andstimulate the growth of unwanted plants.
"Residents and visitors need to know that it is absolutely illegal tobring zebra mussels into the state of Florida or to even have them in yourpossession," said Tom Quinn, an inspector with the Florida Game and FreshWater Fish Commission. "It is a second-degree misdemeanor that carries a$500 fine and up to 60 days in jail."
The Florida Sea Grant Program is working on public education programs tocreate public awareness and ward off an invasion of the pest organismbefore it reaches the costly level it has elsewhere.
A 1997 Florida Sea Grant-funded research project identified Floridawaterways that could be susceptible to a zebra mussel infestation. The BigBend region, the St. Johns River system and water bodies north of LakeOkeechobee all have characteristics that are suitable for zebra musselinhabitation, Clarke said.
Boaters can take a few simple precautions to prevent the introduction ofzebra mussels into Florida's waters.
"Boaters need to be able to identify the zebra mussel and should be awareof currently infested waters," Clarke said. "If they've launched their boatin infested waters, they should inspect and clean the boat and all theirgear before leaving the site.
"It's necessary to flush the engine cooling system, live wells and bilgewith hot water. The boat and trailer should be allowed to dry in the sunfor three to four days before being used again."
Materials provided by University Of Florida's Institute Of Food And Agricultural Sciences. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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