Fish and Aquatic Conservation

Alaska Invasive Species

July 2020 | by Aaron Martin, Regional Invasive Species Program Coordinator

Alaska is rich with globally renowned freshwater and marine resources that are sought after for a host of cultural, commercial, and recreational purposes. These resources are one of the primary drivers of the state’s economy. For example, watercraft use generates a $587M annual economic impact and one in every nine residents owns a registered watercraft.  Furthermore, hydropower delivers over 21% of the energy to urban and remote corners of the state.

Unfortunately, the threat to these native and wild resources from invasive species entering Alaska is persistent, and includes highly invasive species such as quagga and zebra mussels. Alaska is one of only five western states not infested by invasive mussels and an invasion could have significant economic, ecological, and cultural impacts to Alaska’s vibrant salmon and trout fisheries. Recognizing the threat to uninfested western states and provinces, state and federal agencies, tribes, and partners have made unprecedented efforts to contain the spread of invasive mussels in the West. Although the challenge is substantial, it is not insurmountable.

In 2010, the Fairbanks Fish and Wildlife Field Office (FWCO) wrote Alaska Fisheries Technical Report Number 107 that identified what was known about invasive mussels and key actions in keeping them out of Alaska. The technical report laid the ground work for a multi-agency partnership to form a watercraft inspection and decontamination program at the Alcan Port of Entry, on the Alcan Highway at the US/Canada border. This road is the only highway that connects Alaska to the rest of the contiguous US and Canada and is a critical control point in keeping invasive species out of the U.S.’s arctic state. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) has a unique opportunity to provide leadership and support to our federal, state, and tribal partners since this is an international border and the Service can inspect vehicles and trailers at U.S. ports of entry for invasive species that are listed as injurious species under the Lacey Act.

Over the past five years, the Fish and Aquatic Conservation Program has partnered with the National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) Program, the Office of Law Enforcement, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to build the program. During May of 2017, 2018, and 2019, the partners conducted initial inspections to better understand where watercraft are coming from, what kind of watercraft are coming, if they had been inspected on their way north, and how long they had been out of the water. These four simple questions tell us a lot about the risk of watercraft carrying live invasive mussels (or other invasive plants and animals).

The initial risk assessment has shown that 70% of all watercraft entering Alaska have not been inspected by another state or province and 38% were coming from a state with quagga or zebra mussel infested waters (Figure 1). We didn’t find any watercraft with live mussels on them during our initial surveys. However, one sailboat arrived at the Alcan Port of Entry at the beginning of July, 2019 that had zebra mussels on it. Fortunately, the watercraft had been out of the water for multiple years and was considered not a threat by the inspection station in Montana and at the Canada-US border on its way north. The watercraft was cleaned by our project staff to ensure invasive mussels were removed and the DNA from the dead mussels didn’t jeopardize our early detection surveys (think eDNA) in Alaska at a later time (Figure 2).

The Alaska Region started full-time operations at the Alcan Port of Entry this year with staff support from the Fairbanks FWCO, the Tetlin NWR, and the Office of Law Enforcement. We started later than planned due to the challenges of field work during the COVID-19 outbreak, but we are excited to have this excellent partnership and project in place and ready for what may come our way. For those driving north, we welcome you back to the U.S. and appreciate your help keeping Alaska wild and free of invasive species. Please remember to Clean, Drain, and Dry your watercraft and fishing gear before coming our way. #keepalaskawildandfree

map of locations originating crossing into Alaska
Figure 1. Originating locations of watecraft crossing into Alaska during the summer of 2017 through 2019.
photo pressure washing a sailboat to remove zebra mussels
Figure 2. Pressure washing a sailboat to remove zebra mussels.
Photo Credit: USFWS