The Iowa Great Lakes is facing a major threat.
An invasive species native to the Caspian Sea has made a new home right here in Northwest Iowa.
There's no turning back now, so what will happen to the Iowa Great Lakes as the spread of zebra mussels continues?
Zebra Mussels have been wreaking havoc in Lake Okoboji since 2012.
There are no predators of the mussels in the Iowa Great Lakes.
Once an unfamiliar body of water is invaded by zebra mussels, it's impossible to stop the spread.
The mussels may be small in size but they reproduce rapidly and attach themselves to things like docks, boat hoist, and buoys.
So, what harm could mussels that are less than two inches in size do to an entire region?
More than one would think.
It doesn't take long for the invasive species to reproduce and cause damage.
Zebra mussels haven't been around for very long in the lakes area.
Five years to be exact but, they're already starting to change the appearance of the Iowa Great Lakes.
Zebra Mussels are an invasive species to the United States so anytime they show up in a body of water here, they can cause a change to the ecosystem of a lake or a river.
That's exactly what Lake Okoboji is starting to see.
Mike Hawkins is a fisheries biologist in the Iowa Great Lakes region.
He sees first hand the effects that zebra mussels are having on the area.
"They can filter large quantities of water. So, an adult mussel can filter about one quart of water a day and, they're filtering out small plankton for food," says Mike Hawkins, Fisheries Biologist.
Because Zebra Mussels eat plankton and algae, it's harming some fish in the lakes.
"And, so they're filtering out water and taking out plankton. So, other species that would rely on that plankton have a harder time" says Hawkins. "So, they have kind of a clearing effect and they're taking a lot of those nutrients that would be available for other species and utilizing those and then they have excrement and so a lot of that productivity ends up being shifted from the lake water column down to the bottom of the lake."
As years go on and the zebra mussel population grows the effects of zebra mussels only becomes more damaging.
Lake Okoboji hasn't seen much of a change in the ecosystem since the invasive species is so new to the area.
For some native species, the future could change for the better.
"Some species may actually benefit from zebra mussels. So, because zebra mussels have the ability to kind of clear the water up, we'll start to see more plant life, more aquatic macrophytes or plants growing under water. That can actually create a better environment for some species like bluegill and bass, providing better nursery habitat, more places for insects to grow," says Hawkins.
Because zebra mussels don't have any natural predators in the Iowa Great Lakes, other species won't be as lucky.
"They are other species of fish, small walleyes, for example, and some other filter feeding fish that are going to have a hard time with this, or potentially a hard time with zebra mussels present because their food source is not there when they need it," says Hawkins.
Now, the Iowa Great Lakes region is learning to live with the mussels as many other areas in the country are learning to do.
Jen Johnson-Ross with the Iowa Great Lakes Association has been working for years to help make the public knowledgeable on zebra mussels.
She sees exactly how the resort town is adapting to a new change in life since the zebra mussels invaded the lakes.
"Now, we're seeing them colonize on docks and hoists. What's interesting is when we talk to different businesses, you know, different dock and hoist companies, they're building new swim ladders that can come up every night because you don't want those zebra mussels on there," says Jen Johnson-Ross, community development manager with the Iowa Great Lakes Association. "And, as far as watering your lawn, you know, a lot of people do take that water from the lake, and you know, using galvanized Steele, different things like that, that can help you live with the zebra mussels because, in essence, they're a nuisance."
Businesses and residents are working together to make sure the lake life lives on.
Plenty of people are working to educate others on the spread of zebra mussels.
"The partnership with the department of natural resources and lakeside lab and some of the community lake associations work together to have a volunteer or lake monitoring interns that go to boat ramps and actually educate boaters and folks that are coming in for recreational use as well as for the lake and just talking to them about aquatic invasive species" says Dennis Heimdal, Environmentalist Lab Specialist with the University of Iowa.
The boat ramp monitors do a number of things including checking boats for zebra mussels that might be hitchhiking.
That helps to prevent the spread of zebra mussels.
So, just how do experts think this is going to change the region?
"Overall I don't know if it's going to have a major impact on recreation," says Jeff Morrison, Conservation Officer with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. "It changed the way we did business and that's really the majority of it. There's a lot of lakes that have had them for a long time and they're still heavily used, good fisheries, well recreated. So, it's going to change things but, I don't know if it's going to devastate the area or anything like that" says Morrison.
The Iowa Great Lakes region has been able to educate the public on the risks that zebra mussels pose.
Because of that, there are two lakes in the region that have yet to see zebra mussels.
Center Lake and Big Spirit Lake.
Now, it's up to everyone who visits those lakes to make sure the harmful mussels don't spread to those lakes.
You can help to prevent the spread of zebra mussels by making sure to remove all plugs on your boat once it's out of the water.
Also, make sure you clean your boat after taking it out of the lake.
Fishers can help stop the spread of zebra mussels by making sure to dispose of bait after using it.
Don't use the bait on one lake then use it in another.
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