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You are here: Home / Manager's Tool Kit / Early Detection and Rapid Response / The Early Detectives / Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife zebra mussel volunteer programs: Zebra Mussels
Manager's Tool Kit
Early Detection and Rapid Response

The Early Detectives: How to Use Volunteers Against Invasive Species, Case Studies of Volunteer Early Detection Programs in the U.S.

Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife zebra mussel volunteer programs: Zebra Mussels

Contacts: Pamala Meacham, Invasive Species Coordinator Washington State DFW zebra mussel volunteer program
E-mail: meachpmm@dfw.wa.gov
Phone: (360) 902-2741


The Washington State DFW zebra mussel volunteer program was begun in 1999, to monitor for, and combat the potential introduction of zebra mussels into Washington's freshwater bodies. Zebra mussels have been spreading throughout the interconnected waterways of the United States, including the entire Great Lakes Region, along with the Hudson, Mississippi, Missouri and many other watersheds.
The volunteer program monitors for the introduction of zebra mussels in areas of increased boater traffic, commercial shipping lanes, boat-launches, dams and ecologically sensitive areas.

"Veliger monitoring" seeks to detect the presence of the mussels at their larval stage. A large submersible "veliger net" consisting of a fine mesh net and codpiece, is towed behind a boat at approx. 10-15 ft depth, and for a predetermined distance, according to location variables. (lake/river size etc.) The net is towed in one direction, removed and sprayed down with fresh water to condense the sample in the collector cup at the end of the net, then the sample is bottled, labeled, and preserved with alcohol. The process is repeated in the opposite direction of the previous tow. Samples are sent to a lab for analysis. Using GPS technology, the volunteers/biologists are able to determine the exact location of the collection point, enabling them to return in the case of detection. The veliger-monitoring program is conducted mostly by trained biologist volunteers, from Public Utility Districts, WDFW, and other agencies, and is performed twice a month during June, July and August. The GPS data and lab results are compiled into a database in which is shared between the Washington DFW and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The substrate-monitoring program is low-impact detection, which is performed by biologists and volunteers alike. Substrate monitoring consists of placing a twelve-inch piece of PVC tubing, with abraded edges and fine mesh inside, in the areas predetermined for monitoring. The tubes are attached to ropes for easy recovery, and are checked monthly to bimonthly by the volunteer in charge of the site. The tubes are removed from the water, examined, and any suspicious elements are collected, bottled, sent to the DFW or Portland State University which in turn sends them to a lab for analysis.

In case of detection, the DFW has the authority to declare a water body "infested." The DFW attempts to discourage the spread of invasive species though warnings, and education as to the proper protocol to ensure that the zebra mussels and other invasive species are not spread to additional locations. Educational signs are posted at most DFW and Parks boat launches.

In addition, the DFW works in unison with the Washington State Patrol, to inspect commercially hauled boats at the ports of entry into the state for the presence of the mollusk. A new law allows the DFW to inspect privately hauled boats as well. Since the mid 1990's all boats entered in fishing contests in the state must be inspected for zebra mussels prior to entering the competition. The DFW also hires people to inspect boats and do public education at some of the busier boat launch sites during fishing season.

Washington also has a ballast water law in place that requires vessels to perform open ocean exchange of their ballast prior to discharging it into state waters to help minimize the risk of introducing invasive species.


The cooperative boat inspection program with the Washington State Patrol has had success in halting the launching of 4 boats encrusted with zebra mussels until they have been properly cleaned, thereby reducing the risk of potential zebra mussel establishment in the Washington Region. One of the boats encrusted with zebra mussels was bound for British Columbia, which at that time had no formal monitoring programs regarding zebra mussels, and has since begun a public education campaign and monitoring programs to combat the introduction of the species.

Recruitment and Training

Volunteers are commonly recruited by word of mouth, public appearances, news-briefs, collaboration with local colleges and Washington state NGO's. The biologists were recruited via direct contact. "Although the biologists are doing this during work hours, the duties are taken on in addition to their normal duties - we consider them volunteers."

Public education and awareness typically bring out volunteers interested in the substrate monitoring programs. The volunteers that perform veliger monitoring are usually trained biologists, familiar with sampling protocols. For the substrate monitoring volunteers there is no formal training. The volunteers are sent a packet of information and a substrate-sampling device and begin monitoring. Most of the volunteers are people with waterfront property, who place the sampler on a dock or somewhere close to their property. A good indication of when an area is adequately monitored is when there are either veliger samples taken two or three times during the summer in the area of high use boat launches, or when substrate samplers are out in the area of all high use boat launches that are frequently checked - especially during the summer.

Recommendations for Beginning a Program

It is important to get actively involved on, across agencies, to contact a variety of organizations, and be familiar with who is active and important within those organizations. Do not duplicate what others have done when beginning a program. By contacting reliable sources currently involved with the problem, good information on beginning a program can be gathered without succumbing to a trial and error process. It is also important to foster cooperation and coordination on the local and regional levels, usually through routine contact with regional agencies and NGO's dealing with similar problems. Agency competition will lead to program stagnation and inefficiency.

Most non-native aquatic species are found either by children or people that spend time on the beach or in the water, and therefore are more apt to observe changes or new additions to the environment. "The most powerful tool in the battle against invasives is education. This is the reason why signs, news blurbs, posters, Web sites, etc. are very important. Someone may not have a sampler out some place - they may see something attached to a rock, or a weed, or on a clam or mussel, they may catch something fishing, or see some changes in the beachfront habitat. Everyone out there is a volunteer in one way or another if you can get the word out to them."

When monitoring for invasives, you do not need to have a formal program, or a training regimen. The most important aspect is to disperse information. Training programs can become too demanding, many volunteers stop volunteering when you start talking about training programs and rigid reporting regimes. The idea is to construct a program that is simple, and easy to use, something that will not demand too much from the volunteers.

Challenges of the Program

Securing stable funding for the program is a difficulty, and is the main inhibitor of the DFW's initiative. The invasive species project is understaffed at present.

Quick Facts

Staffing: One invasive species coordinator, an assistant invasive species coordinator, 8-10 biologists from Public Utility Districts, Native American Tribes, and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife who volunteer to monitor in addition to their other duties, and 35-40 additional volunteers.

Operating Budget: Portion received from state funding, grants from National Invasive Species Act, contracts from other agencies for specific projects. (For example over the next three summers WDFW will hire science technicians to perform snorkling surveys of several streams looking for the presence of Atlantic Salmon).

Species Targeted: Zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha)

Habitats Patrolled: fresh water regions, lakes, rivers and streams

Location: USA, Washington State

Report prepared by: Matthew Rose

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Last Modified: May 18, 2016
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