The Upper Canada Migratory Bird Sanctuary, east of Morrisburg, encompasses an area that was once the site of the town of Aultsville. The village, like nearly a dozen small communities along the St. Lawrence, was flooded during the development of the St. Lawrence Seaway and hydroelectric project. The towns have been dubbed the “Lost Villages“. In the fall, when water levels are low, you can follow the hiking trails at the bird sanctuary to the part of the river where Aultsville once stood and still see foundations from the old community. Standing on the little beach, above, you can just make out the remains of a roadway running off into the water.
Looking south, you can see a row of gulls resting on foundations submerged just below water level. We met an old-timer on the beach who told us that the water level was rising again. When he had visited a couple of weeks earlier, much more of the foundations and roads were visible. He attended high school in Aultsville more than 60 years ago and still returns regularly to visit the town.
It’s a pretty spot. Looking out over the river, you can see mountains on the horizon, the Adirondack Mountains in New York State.
As I was standing on the beach, I noticed that there were lots of little shells scattered about my feet. I picked up a half a dozen of them and brought them home to look at more closely. The shells are all worn and scuffed and their original shell patterns have disappeared, but some of them were likely striped. They’re foreign invaders: zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha).
Like the flooding of the “Lost Villages”, the introduction of Zebra Mussels to the great North American inland seas is a result of the Seaway development. But while the people of the Lost Villages were relocated and moved on with their lives, the Great Lakes ecosystem has been irrevocably damaged. Native to the Black and Caspian seas, the mussels were inadvertently introduced to North America via the ballast water of ocean-going ships traversing the St. Lawrence Seaway. They were first detected in the Great Lakes in 1988, in Lake St. Clair, located between Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario.
Young zebra mussels are small and can be easily spread by water currents. Older zebra mussels attach themselves to hard surfaces using ‘strings’, byssal threads, which come out of their hinged side. Native mussels do not attach themselves to surfaces in this manner, but bury themselves in sand. Often, the hard surface zebra mussels attach themselves to on the silty bottom of rivers and lakes belongs to a native mussel. Thus encrusted, the native mussel cannot function and dies. Thus, zebra mussels are decimating the native mussel population.
Zebra mussels cause millions of dollars worth of damage every year. For example, it will cost the city of Buffalo four to five million dollars to remove zebra mussels that are clogging the city’s water intake pipe .
Zebra mussels do have some positive impacts. For example, many native fish species eat zebra mussels. However, they do not feed heavily enough on zebra mussels to keep the populations under control.
From an initial stronghold in Lake St. Clair, zebra mussels have been widely introduced to other waterways, often as hitchhikers on recreational craft. The map below shows their range in 2008, two decades after they were first identified in the Great Lakes region. Stars indicate where zebra mussels have been found on boats on trailers, but have not been confirmed in local waterways. Yet.