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OUR TURN: Keep zebra mussels from strangling our waterways and fishing

A strange life form is on the verge of invading the Highland Lakes, and only you can save the day.

Though that sentence sounds overly dramatic, it nonetheless is true.

If you don’t believe us, just ask the Lower Colorado River Authority. Aquatic scientists with the authority are sounding a warning about the tiny zebra mussel.

Though small, the zebra mussels pose a big threat to the ecological balance of the Highland Lakes.

The good news is, they aren’t here yet. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be. And that’s where the conscientious efforts of boaters play an important part in keeping these freshwater menaces from the lakes.

Zebra mussels are a mollusk native to Russia that turned up in Michigan’s Lake St. Clair in 1988. Since then, they have spread across the Great Lakes and the Mississippi Valley, multiplying at an alarming rate and upsetting the natural balance.

None have been found in the Highland Lakes, only in Northeast Texas, but LCRA is asking boaters to take precautions to keep them out of local waterways.

Make no mistake, this is not some minor ecological hiccup.

The mussels pose a threat to the tourism-based economy of the region if they get here. After all, that economy thrives on water sports, including fishing.

An entire industry — bait shops, fishing guides, boat sales, overnight lodging, campgrounds, state parks — has grown up around the pursuit of angling. These mollusks, which are about the size of a fingernail, can bring all that to a halt.

If the mussels attach themselves to a dock, somebody climbing out of the water can be cut by the shells. The creatures also can get in intake pipes and clog them.

Zebra mussels also attach themselves to native mussel species, leading to suffocation.

When that happens, they overfilter water and pull out the algae and chlorophyll. This has an adverse impact on the food chain, affecting filter feeders such as minnows and shad.

Boaters need to do their part to keep the zebra mussels from overwhelming the Highland Lakes. If they bring a craft in from an area suspected of an infestation, they should take the appropriate steps to eradicate the mussels or their larva.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department recommends cleaning a boat that has been in infested waters at a commercial car wash or with a high-pressure sprayer with water at 140 degrees and soap.

All live wells, bilges and bait buckets should be drained before leaving the infested lake.

Boaters also can leave the boat out of water for at least a week, as well as keep open live wells and bait buckets for the same period. Without water, the mussels usually will die.

Don’t be fooled by their seeming insignificance — their numbers quickly increase.

Prevention is the key. Once the zebra mussels arrive, there is no getting rid of them. Every person who boats should do their part to maintain the delicate ecological balance of the Highland Lakes so the waterways and fishing can be enjoyed for generations to come.