Oxford, 07 October 2005: A public vote has hailed the zebra mussel Britain's worst intruder and biggest pest. Members of the public joined environmental charity Earthwatch for a hard-fought and emotive debate about the eradication of non-native species. Speaking at the Earthwatch Balloon Debate, hosted by the Royal Geographical Society, five eminent scientists gave a persuasive argument to eradicate some of Britain's more infamous alien species, including the muntjac deer, the ruddy duck, the mink, the rhododendron and the zebra mussel. Battling for a fictional eradication licence, each speaker provided an insight into the policy and practice of this controversial area of biodiversity conservation.
Despite stiff competition it was the little known zebra mussel that walked away with the overwhelming vote, beating the poisonous rhododendron ponticum and the merciless mink. Zebra mussels are currently spreading through Britain and other parts of the world at an alarming rate, attaching to one another to form ‘crusts' of 15 cm thickness and living in such high densities that they rapidly dominate both river and lake ecosystems.
"No one is safe from the zebra mussel," warned Dr. David Aldridge from the University of Cambridge. "The UK water industry is now spending millions of pounds each year because zebra mussels are blocking pipelines, filter beds and water pumps. They are choking the habitats of our birds and fish and smothering our native mussels. Boats are even crashing in the River Thames because their steering fails, due to zebra mussel fouling."The audience were alarmed to hear that industries in the United States are spending more than $3 billion a year on zebra mussel eradication, and it will not be too long until Britain faces the same struggle. Zebra mussels are extremely difficult to kill, with the only widely used technique of chlorination having devastating impacts on other wildlife.
Luckily Aldridge is currently developing a new technique for zebra mussel control. The BioBullet solution is an environmentally-friendly alternative to conventional treatments, and preliminary trials with the UK water industry are very encouraging.
"It is essential that we spread the word about zebra mussel fouling," says Aldridge. "They will attach themselves to anything and rapidly alter the environment around them. This is not just a problem for wildlife; this is a problem for us. There can be little doubt that the zebra mussel is Britain's worst invader. Its combination of economic and ecological impacts makes it an absolute priority for control and eradication."
"The Earthwatch Debate is designed to give voice to conservation priorities such as this," adds Dr Roger Mitchell, Chief Scientist at Earthwatch. "While this is a fictional debate there is no doubt that the issues addressed and the information assembled by all the speakers deserves recognition and consideration. Last night, virtually no one in the audience had ever heard of the zebra mussel, but all left with a new knowledge of the threats of this and other invasive species to our wildlife and economy to pass on to others in their community."
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Photo Credits (top to bottom) : © Baz Hughes, Wildfowl an Wetlands Trust © David Aldridge, Cambridge University 2005