New West Virginia Invasive Species Said to be Pesky — and Tasty

Charleston Gazette Mail
20 September 2015
By Rick Steelhammer, Recreation Reporter

Chinese mystery snails, which get their name from their suddenly appearing fully-developed young offspring, were first detected in West Virginia in 2011 in Rockcliff Lake in Hardy County. Last month the U.S. Forest Service announced it was considering draining Rockcliff Lake this fall because of the invasive snail, which has already established a sizable colony in the lake. Look out, rock snot, zebra mussels and Asian carp! Another aquatic invasive species with an exotic name — the Chinese mystery snail — has begun to move into West Virginia’s waterways. If it has its way, it could eventually establish large colonies at the bottoms of certain reservoirs and slow-moving streams across the state.

The exotic snail has made its way across much of the nation since it first entered the United States as a food item in a Chinese market in San Francisco in the late 1880s, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Later, the snail was sold to aquarium owners who wanted to make their fish tanks more visually appealing. It is theorized that the snails were released into lakes and streams by aquarium owners who had to empty their tanks and believed releasing the snails into the wild was more humane than euthanizing them. By 1914, the snails had been detected as far east as Massachusetts, and now can be found in at least 30 states from California to Maine.Chinese mystery snails were first detected in West Virginia in 2011 in Rockcliff Lake in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests’ Trout Pond Recreation Area in Hardy County, according to the Potomac Highlands Cooperative Weed and Pest Management Area’s newsletter. Last month, the U.S. Forest Service announced it was considering draining Rockcliff Lake this fall “if time and budget allow, to assess the feasibility of reducing the current population” of the invasive snail, which has established a sizable colony in the 17-acre impoundment.

The lake draining concept would have taken place in conjunction with a six-month temporary closure of the Trout Pond Recreation Area’s campground, which began on Monday, during which new bathhouses will be built and an upgraded water system will be installed. But now the snail-killing scheme seems iffy, as more is learned about the exotic snail’s ability to withstand prolonged de-watering and other control methods.

The snail’s ability to close up its shell, unlike most native snail species, allows it to survive prolonged dry spells and protects it from introduced poisons, according to Katie Donahue, district ranger for the Lee Ranger District.

“One study we’ve looked at shows that they can survive up to four weeks without water, and another researcher found they could live up to nine weeks,” she said. “By being able to close up their shells, they can also survive chemical controls, which would kill everything else in the lake. If we do draw down the lake, the most we would be able to do would be to reduce the population. We wouldn’t be able to eliminate them.”

While the exotic snails are considered fairly benign, “they compete with native snails and can get so numerous that they can block screens and intake pipes,” Donahue said. “There have been reports that they can carry different diseases, but there’s no indication of any health issues at Rockcliff Lake.”

Situated a few hundred yards from Rockcliff Lake is Trout Pond, the state’s only natural lake. Formed by a blocked limestone sinkhole, the two-acre pond contains no Chinese mystery snails, perhaps because it has been devoid of water several months of each year in recent years possibly because its natural boulder-formed plug is leaking.

Donaue said she’s heard that Chinese mystery snails have also been found in Kimsey Run Lake in Hardy County. According to U.S. Geological Survey data, the exotic snail has also established a presence at Stonecoal Lake in Upshur County.

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the snails get their name from the fact that during spring, they give birth to young, fully developed juveniles that suddenly and mysteriously appear, while most other snails lay eggs.

If it turns out fishery biologists find no good way to beat the Chinese mystery snails, folks can always eat them. Recipes for the critters are available from a number of online sources and are included in Jackson Landers’ cookbook, “Eating Aliens: One Man’s Adventure Hunting Invasive Animal Species.”

According to Landers, Chinese mystery snails “aren’t going to be four-star cuisine, but after being tenderized, fried and served with cocktail sauce, they’re quite good.”Reach Rick Steelhammer at 304-348-5169, or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.