The good news is that zebra mussels have not made it into Lake of the Woods or the Rainy River, yet.
The bad news is that zebra mussels have invaded several headwaters upstream in the Rainy-Lake of the Woods basin and infested hundreds of lakes nearby, outside the basin.
Zebra mussels were first confirmed in 2013 in the Rainy-Lake of the Woods basin in Sand Lake and the closely connected Little Sand Lake and Rice Lake in Itasca County, Minnesota.
In late 2017, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources confirmed the presence of zebra mussels downstream of the initial 2013 invasion, in Dora Lake and the upper reaches of the Big Fork River about seven miles downstream of Dora Lake at the Itasca County Road 31 crossing near Wirt, Minnesota.
The Big Fork River ultimately flows to the Rainy River. Although many miles upstream of the Rainy River (about 55 miles as the crow flies) and Lake of the Woods, the presence and spread of zebra mussels in our basin is an ominous sign. We all should be concerned.
Aquatic invasive species (AIS) introductions are an ongoing worry in the Rainy-Lake of the Woods basin in terms of spread of AIS already present and future introductions. The basin has been subject to many invaders, including hybrid cattail, spiny water flea, another non-native water flea known as Eubosmina coregoni, rusty crayfish, papershell crayfish, clearwater crayfish and rainbow smelt.
The Rainy-Lake of the Woods basin is vulnerable to introductions of non-native aquatic biota due to its popularity as a tourist destination, its proximity to several large water bodies and systems (i.e., Great Lakes, Mississippi drainage system, Red River) and a lack of coordination across jurisdictions in the basin. Given these risk factors, there is considerable potential for invasive species introductions and range expansions.
It’s time for a coordinated multi-jurisdictional approach to prevent further introductions or spread of invasive species in the Rainy Lake of the Woods basin. This is something that we all have a role in.
The beauty of the thousands of lakes in our basin attracts people from all over North America to cottages and for camping, canoeing, fishing and other aquatic recreation. Decontaminating our boats, fishing gear and anything else that enters our waters is a must as we move from water body to water body. Anglers can play a role in abiding by live bait restrictions and never transporting bait from one water body to another. Governments have a role too – AIS policies and prevention and enforcement approaches vary across the two provinces, one state and two federal jurisdictions in our basin. A coordinated approach and effort is needed.
Executive director of the Lake of the Woods Water Sustainability Foundation (LOWWSF) in Kenora, Ontario, and a member of the IJC Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed Board.