By Darren Lum
Earlier this month, a large find of 150 kilograms of dead banded mystery snails in Haliburton grabbed national headlines.
The recent find didn’t make aquatic program specialist Brook Schryer with the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters any more concerned than he already was about invasive snails such as the Chinese Mystery Snail or the Banded Mystery Snail.
Schryer, who has years of experience dealing with invasive species, said the recent media attention about the snails is a good thing, even if it’s just indicative of a life cycle for the snails.
“It’s good to see that this is picking up a little bit. Banded Mystery Snails have been in Canada for quite some time and in Ontario for quite some time and they’re actually intentionally introduced, [I suspect] from the aquarium trade. Basically decades ago [they] were introduced to the Great Lakes and have spread inland and they do go through these cycles. They go through these cycles where you have these larger die-offs and often times it just coincides with essentially, the expiration date of the snail,” he said.
The lifespan for a snail is three to four years and spring is when they typically die.
As far as this recent find goes and explaining how the snails may have died, Schryer wasn’t sure.
“It could have to do with the temperatures of the water. It could have to do with the water chemistry. It could just have to do with the fact three or four years ago there was a huge surge of Banded Mystery Snails and just so happens we’re seeing the end of that life cycle for those snails,” he said. “I wouldn’t say this year isn’t any worse, or better than prior years.”
Schryer has been leading a local group of close to 300 passionate volunteers in the Highlands with the Coalition of Haliburton Property Owners Associations mystery snail project, who have been trained to identify, collect and aim to decrease mystery snails in the county’s lakes. Under the Federal fisheries act, snails are classified as crustaceans and fish, so removing them from the water requires a scientific collector’s permit through the Ministry of Northern Development Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry, formerly the MNRF, Schryer said.
While he holds the permit, he has close to 300 licensees for the participants to be trained and permitted to photograph, identify, and confirm the invasive species and then euthanize and remove. It’s considered the most ever permitted by the ministry.
“I heard from one gentleman that he had removed close to 19,000 snails. And that’s only one out of close to 300 volunteers. By the end of it, I don’t want to exaggerate or give unrealistic numbers, but we could very well be in the 50,000 snail range, being removed from our waters … It’s not just the impact on the environment and the native species, but it’s also societal impact from not being able to enjoy your beachfront, not being able to go swimming, not really being able to recreate as you would prior to these snails being there,” he said. “So what this does it empowers the people in that region to be able to not only know what they’re looking at, but then to legally remove them, discard them, so they can actually try to stay on top of the problem that is appearing on their shorelines.”
He believes the growth trend will continue and more pics of the unsightly species, which emits a stench when deceased, will be posted and gain more attention.
“I’ve been receiving reports of invasive species for five plus years now as the aquatic program specialist with the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters and I’ve seen pictures that are similar to pictures getting media attention in the past. I’ve seen people report hundreds and thousands of dead snails on their shore, year after year because, as you can imagine, every single year there’s going to be an accumulation of snails, which have reached their end of life and who die off,” he said.
The collection effort is also supposed to reduce the impact to native snails such as the brown mystery snail or the giant pond snail.
Although the invasive snails have been here for more than 100 years, their presence has taken time for the public to notice, which is consistent with other invasive species.
“I just don’t think that snails have that appearance that kind of flips that switch in somebody’s head, right? They’re not like the giant hog weed of the world where you see it and go, ‘Wow, what is that? When you see snails, most people just think, ‘Oh, they must be native. Or they must be native to this area.’ You just don’t normally get people complaining about snails, so this year … what we tried to do was raise that profile and really bring it to the attention of the people of Haliburton.”
Also, the invasive snails have the ability to grow exponentially, giving them a competitive advantage over other snails.
Typical snails are hermaphroditic and can self-propagate, but the mystery snails have males and females, who can give birth to live snails. Snails usually lay eggs, which can be vulnerable to predators, he said.
“You’re skipping a life stage, which is most vulnerable, so all of a sudden they have a huge competitive advantage. And that’s why they’re called mystery snails. You’d have one snail and then all of a sudden you’d have 100 snails, like where did all these snails come from?”
This reproduction also keeps them somewhat ahead of being affected by being consumed by animals and being removed by people.
He characterizes the Highlands as the “frontline” in the battle against the invasive snails, who have been moving north.
The collection program is not just good for now, but for the future.
“We want the people there to not only help us with mapping, and tracking and understanding which water bodies have them and which don’t, but also provide them the tools to hopefully work towards management and maybe in some circumstances maybe in an ideal world, eradication,” he said. “It’s not very likely, but, hey, something is happening.”
He adds one of the issues for the public with invasive species is apathy and ignorance.
He wants the public in general to care about learning and develop a sense of what they can do to help reduce the spread of all kinds of invasive species.
This can be as simple as cleaning your boat before moving it from one lake to another.
Action is integral for change, but it’s also an important attitude to have.
“When people take action that’s when, yeah, maybe it’s in futility, but it doesn’t matter because we’re getting people involved, getting engaged and actually working towards the betterment of our environment and reducing the impact of invasive species,” he said.
Among the passionate volunteers includes Kent Rundle, a coordinator for the volunteers on Horseshoe Lake. He knows the area from having spent his summers growing up on Horseshoe Lake at his grandparents’ cottage, which his parents inherited. Rundle is familiar with aquatic restoration through his day job.
“I’ve seen the impact that invasive species has had on other areas down in southern Ontario. So, when this became an issue, and they were looking for people to support, I said I would help out,” he said.
With a young family, he admits not being able to come up to the area very often the last two years. However, he has provided administrative duties, including a few days of field work recently for the collection project.
Rundle also coordinates the data that is collected, which includes where, what types, and how many snails there are.
“Most reports that I’m getting from people are upwards of 80 collected on a collection day for a fairly small area of shoreline. That would be like 30 metres of shoreline,” he said.
He has worked towards combating invasive species before, but this time it’s in his virtual backyard.
“At parts of the lake, it’s surprising to see how quickly they’ve taken hold,’ he said.
Schryer said the public needs to be educated about invasive species in terms of singling out a group of people. Names like the Chinese Mystery Snail or the Gypsy moth – the use of Gypsy is pejorative (Brittanica) for Romani people – can be problematic.
There is a move to use names for invasive species so the public, who are unaware of the origin of certain invasive species, don’t jump to conclusions about blaming a particular ethnic group.
He doesn’t know if invasive species from North America found in China are named something like the American snail, but acknowledges there are invasive species from the U.S. here that don’t have names referencing their place of origin.
“Chinese Mystery Snail native to China. Banded Mystery Snail is native to the southern United States. Native to Florida, Georgia those regions. Why didn’t they call it the American snail? You know?” he said. He imagines the thought process was let’s ‘Call that one the Chinese and call this one, ah, yeah, the Banded.’
Unlike some of the scientific Latin names of species that include a place of origin such as the Chinese Mystery Snail, there isn’t always a choice for people in the invasive field.
“From our perspective, we have to work within the scientific and the given names of these species, so often times we don’t have a choice. And it just so happens when you think of Chinese Mystery Snails, the Cipangopaludina chinensis [malleata] China is almost in the Latin name,” he said.
He adds there is an effort when possible to get away from given names of species such as the Gypsy moth and use the more accurate acronym of its Latin name, Lymantria dispar dispar, so LDD.
“It’s something that’s taken some time, but we’re getting there,” he said. “A lot of these species were named in the early-1900s or early to mid-1900s and before you and I were born. We’re just dealing with the repercussions and left over racism of an earlier generation.”