Invasive zebra mussels surfacing in home aquariums via contaminated pet store moss balls

The zebra mussel scourge is popping up in the most unusual place: pet stores.

Conservation organizations and governments across North America are warning aquarium and fish tank owners about moss ball plant products being sold at local pet shops that have invasive zebra mussels clinging to them.

“Destroy! Don’t Dump!,” warns the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Zebra mussels are regarded as one of the most destructive invasive species in North America.”

The species is known to quickly take over a waterbody once they get established and cause significant damage. That includes disrupting the food chain, changing the chemistry of the water as well as clogging water intake and delivery systems.

Destroy! Don’t Dump! Invasive zebra mussels were recently found in "moss balls,” an aquarium plant product sold at…

Posted by USFWS Fisheries on Friday, March 5, 2021

The U.S. government is tracking the moss balls, imported from Ukraine to a distributor in California, which recently shipped contaminated product to pet stores nationwide.

The product is called “Betta Buddy Marimo Balls” and is now showing up all over North America. The fear is that discarded items will end up in the environment and contaminate new waterways.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks says the facility that imports the moss balls has been quarantined and all shipments of moss balls have been stopped.

The contaminated items are showing up in Canada, as well.

The British Columbia Conservation Officer Service also issued a warning after a woman in Terrace found zebra mussels in her aquarium moss balls.

“Contaminated moss balls – which are sold at pet and plant stores – have been found in the U.S.,” the province said. “The COS is working with ministry invasive species colleagues, as well as in Canada and the U.S., to help prevent any potential spread of invasive zebra mussels.”

Officials also don’t want people to flush or toss the moss balls without taking some steps to destroy them first.

The contaminated item can be placed in plastic bag and tossed in the freezer for at least 24 hours. It can also be boiled in water for at least one minute. Or, dunk the moss ball into chlorine bleach or undiluted white vinegar for 20 minutes.

Only then should it — and any of its packaging — be placed in a sealed plastic and thrown in the trash.

“Please do not flush moss balls down the toilet or dispose of them in the compost,” the B.C. conservation officer service explained. “Never dump aquarium tank pets, plants or water into any residential water system or B.C. waterway.”

Zebra mussels on not a natives species in North America. Photo: USFWS

To date, the invasive species hasn’t been found to have been introduced into B.C. waterways, but it has taken hold elsewhere.

This small freshwater mollusk originated in the Black, Caspian, and Azov seas regions.

Canal systems built in the late 18th and early 19th centuries saw the species spread across Europe. It was first reported in the United States in 1988 and within two years had spread to all five Great Lakes. And now, they are pretty much everywhere.

Boats made good transport vessels.

Checkpoints are often set up to make sure watercraft are clear of them when moving between water bodies.

Zebra mussels hitch rides on propellers of boats and anything else that isn’t cleaned properly. Photo: USFWS

Alberta even uses dogs to sniff out zebra mussels as Alberta Environment and Parks’ Conservation K9 unit checks for introduction or spread of the invasive species.

The province’s Environment Minister, Jason Nixon, even took time recently to wish happy birthday to one such canine member of the anti-zebra mussel squad.

Happy birthday, Diesel! Your tireless efforts to keep our waterways and irrigation systems free of invasive zebra…

Posted by Jason Nixon on Tuesday, January 26, 2021

For now, it doesn’t appear any of the contaminated pet store moss balls have made it to local waterways.

But officials are asking pet stores to get rid of the product.

“We urge all pet stores to immediately remove this product from their shelves,” Rick Boatner, invasive species program supervisor with Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, said in a statement. “Our concern is that invasive mussels from this product could get into the wild, start a population and do serious damage.

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