Invasive Zebra Mussels Hitch a Ride on Aquarium Moss Balls

Image: Dave Britton/USFWS

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

Federal officials have found zebra mussels catching a ride on aquarium décor sold across the U.S. Pet stores in 21 states have now recalled moss balls sold as aquarium accessories due to the presence of the invasive species. Zebra mussels, native to Eurasia, were introduced to U.S. waters in the 1980s and have been wreaking havoc on native ecosystems ever since. The species multiplies rapidly, attaches itself to other organisms, and consumes resources disproportionately. Experts fear that this pet store outbreak could spread the species to even more regions.

Why This Matters: According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in the last few centuries, more than 4,500 foreign species have been introduced to North America, while not all of them have been particularly harmful (like horses and chickens), some took root in ways that have disturbed native ecosystems. Just five years after the first 1988 account of zebra mussels in the Great Lakes, the species could be found on ship hulls and in lakes as far away as California. As of 2011, zebra mussels have been documented in 31 states and over 600 lakes and reservoirs.

In those bodies of water, “they alter food webs and change water chemistry, harming native fish plants and other aquatic life…clog pipelines used for water filtration, render beaches unusable, and damage boats,” costing hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

Research has found that in regions with high concentrations of zebra mussels, populations of native mussels declined in just two years and remaining mussels were smaller and weaker than before the invasive species’ arrival. Already, 70% of North American mussel species are endangered and experts worry that if zebra mussels are left unchecked, they could wipe out native species, and irreparably damage ecosystems.

Uninvited Guests: Zebra mussels hitching a ride on moss balls is not something that experts expected.

This was on nobody’s radar, this was completely out of left field for us. When the initial report came in, there was that scratching of the head – I didn’t even know what moss balls were until last Tuesday,” said Capt. Eric Anderson, Washington Fish and Wildlife’s aquatic invasive species enforcement manager.

Washington State, which has managed to avoid zebra mussel infestations through strict monitoring of boats and other craft that mussels often cling to, could suffer greatly from the mussels’ arrival. Zebra mussels threaten salmon populations that the state relies on for fishing and an infestation could cost the state more than $100 million annually to control.

For now, Petco has halted all sales of affected moss ball brands. The U.S. Geological Survey urges customers who purchased these products to destroy the moss balls before disposing of them in a sealed container in the trash. The agency advises that individuals freeze, boil, or bleach their moss balls prior to disposal to ensure that no zebra mussels find their way to new waters.


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