A new program is underway to inspect boats coming into Alberta for zebra and quagga mussels and Eurasian watermilfoil.

The initiative is a partnership between the Government of Alberta and the Blood Tribe First Nation in the province's south, and is aimed at keeping the invasive species out of the province. Officials say the creatures are currently the biggest threat to Alberta's lakes.

"The mussels don't have any natural predators so they can completely take over," said Cindy Sawchuk with Alberta Environment. "They attach to hard surfaces, clogging up your intake pipes, affects the irrigation system ... could cost $1-million a year in maintenance fees if we don't get out ahead and prevent them."

Alberta is one of the four western provinces that have yet to be invaded.

Eastern Canada has been dealing with the species for several years now and officials say once the species invades, they're very difficult to get rid of.


Zebra mussels are one of the species a new government program is working to prevent from entering Alberta waters. (Courtesy: U.S. Department of Agriculture)

"Our irrigation systems are designed to distribute water efficiently throughout the district and if these get in, we'll distribute these vellagers and propogate the infestation throughout our systems," said Chris Gallagher with the St. Mary River irrigation district.

Ships brought species from Black Sea

Officials speculate that the creatures were first introduced to North America in the 1980s from the ballast water of transoceanic ships.

Larvae or adult mussels from the Black Sea were then transported to North American waters such as the Great Lakes.

The zebra and quagga mussels are about the size of a human fingernail and breed quickly — one can produce more than a million eggs in a single year.

Without predators, the creatures feed freely on the good algae that keeps water clean.

However, they also eat plankton, which takes away a valuable food supply for local fish.

For now, the program is focused on searching every nook and cranny of boats coming into the province.

"We know that prevention is the key," said Barry Gibbs of the Alberta Invasive Species Council. "It's way cheaper and way more effective to prevent the introduction than to deal with them afterwards."

The mussels can live up to 30 days outside of water.