Fish and Boat Commission moves to protect local hatcheries from New Zealand mudsnails

New Zealand mudsnails living on a submerged rock in Spring Creek at Fisherman’s Paradise.
New Zealand mudsnails living on a submerged rock in Spring Creek at Fisherman’s Paradise. Courtesy photo

Centre County’s Spring Creek is a “destination stream,” attracting anglers from all over the United States. Those anglers come for the trout fishing experience and, unfortunately, they sometimes bring unwanted guests.

A recent case in point is the New Zealand mudsnail that showed up in Spring Creek about five years ago. The mudsnails were likely — although unknowingly — introduced into Spring Creek by an angler who had been fishing in a western state.

Mudsnails are probably here to stay. However, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is taking steps to make sure that mudsnails do not get into their fish hatcheries and potentially spread across the state with stockings.

The New Zealand mudsnail is tiny, only 4-6 mm long, or about  1/4-inch. They were first discovered in the United States in Idaho’s Snake River in 1987. By 2009, they were found in four of the five Great Lakes, in 10 western states and in Minnesota, Wisconsin and New York. They showed up in Spring Creek in 2012 — with the highest concentrations at Fisherman’s Paradise and at Hartle’s Bridge just downstream.

New Zealand mudsnails are nocturnal grazers of algae and animal detritus. They prefer slow-moving water, but they can and will move upstream. In western states, they influence the quantity and distribution of native aquatic macro-invertebrates and have outcompeted them.

Since 2013, New Zealand mudsnails have been found in Spring Creek from Milesburg all the way up to Lemont and into the headwaters, including several tributary streams. Three Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission fish hatcheries are located in the Spring Creek watershed — Bellefonte, Benner Spring and Pleasant Gap. According to Chief of Fish Production Services Brian Niewinski, the presence of these foreign mudsnails inside a fish hatchery would greatly affect its ability to raise and stock fish.

This summer, the agency will be implementing measures to keep the non-native snail out of its fish-producing facilities.

Fortunately, the New Zealand mudsnail has not yet multiplied in Pennsylvania to the extent that it has in some western states. According to Niewinski, the snail has achieved densities as high as 700,000 per square meter in western streams. Here in Pennsylvania, the highest density in Spring Creek thus far has been 350 per square meter.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources is successfully using electrical barriers to exclude New Zealand mudsnails from their hatcheries. They have experimented with different voltages and techniques to determine what works best. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission intends to follow suit, with the first barriers to be placed later this year.

“It is a low-voltage, low-wattage barrier that the mudsnails will not cross,” Niewinski said. “They will be installed in both the inflows and outflows at the Benner Spring and Bellefonte hatcheries at a cost of about $2,000 per facility. Next on the list will be the Pleasant Gap facility on the Logan Branch.

“We want to keep the New Zealand mudsnail out of our fish hatcheries, because from there they could potentially be spread all across the state. We are being proactive here. ... Because the Centre County walleye production ponds received their water directly from Spring Creek, we have already stopped production of walleye in the county, and we have drained those ponds.”

This has reduced walleye fingerling production by 100,000.

Another agency concern is how the non-native mudsnails might affect their NPDES (water-pollution discharge) permits. The state Department of Environmental Protection and the federal Environmental Protection Agency uses the type, variety and number of aquatic macro-invertebrates found in the receiving stream to evaluate the quality of the water discharged from fish hatcheries. New Zealand mudsnails have the potential to reduce the number and variety of native macro-invertebrates.

Anglers can be part of the solution, too. Mudsnails can get on anglers’ nets, waders and fishing equipment — and could potentially be spread to other watersheds. The agency recommends that anglers freeze or disinfect boots and other equipment after fishing Spring Creek or the Logan Branch. Another approach would be to use separate equipment just for fishing Spring Creek.

Niewinski gave a presentation about New Zealand mudsnails to the commissioners at their April 24 meeting in Harrisburg. In late May, he met with hatchery managers and hopes to have the first electronic barriers in place at the Benner Spring and Bellefonte facilities later this summer. The commissioners will get an update on the progress at their July meeting.

Three ways to fish for free

Sunday — yes, May 28 — is the first of two Fish-for-Free days to be held this year. Fish-for-Free Days allow anyone, resident of non-resident, to fish in Pennsylvania waters without a fishing license. All other regulations apply.

On June 11, area residents will have two opportunities, not only to fish for free, but to get help and/or be able to borrow fishing equipment.

Everyone is welcome to attend the Get Outdoors Family Fishing Picnic sponsored by the Spring Creek Chapter of Trout Unlimited, the Clearwater Conservancy, Centered Outdoors and several local businesses. The event will be held from noon to 4 p.m. at the Tussey Mountain Ski Area in Boalsburg. The outing will include free food, fishing, knot tying, kayaking, fly casting, games, bug identification and other workshops.

Later the same day, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission will hold a Family Fishing Festival at Bald Eagle State Park at Pavilions 6 and 7 from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. This is a good way for families to be introduced to fishing. The PFBC will provide all equipment, bait and tackle — and no license is needed. There will be random prize drawings for those who pre-register online. The program is open to all ages, including children ages 5 and older. Families will learn basic fishing skills and have the opportunity to practice them. Pre-registration is required by 4 p.m. on June 6 for this event. To register, visit Family Fishing Programs at www.gonefishingpa.com.

Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com