Fittingly, the Chinese mystery snail took its time getting to Virginia. In the late 19th century, food markets in San Francisco imported the creatures; within 20 years, perhaps due to merchants breeding them in area waters, they’d reached the San Francisco Bay. “This snail is readily imported for Asian food markets,” reads a report from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, which documented the snails in 2004. Some releases, according to the report, “may have been intentional in an effort to create a local food source.”
Last fall, Jackson Landers, an area author who writes about locally sourced food and hunting, found a bunch of the snails in a pond visible from the Saunders-Monticello Trail, which leads up the mountain towards Thomas Jefferson’s home. Landers, who is currently finishing a book focused on invasive species titled Eating Aliens, later found another group of Chinese mystery snails near the Totier Creek Reservoir in Scottsville. As Landers points out on his blog, “The Totier Creek spillway empties into the James River only a few miles downstream.”
Landers collected a few snails and, he told C-VILLE, they reproduce fast. “One snail could turn into thousands by the end of the summer,” he said.
How does a small invasive cause big problems? In 2007, Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) Diversity Biologist Brian Watson tackled the problematic New Zealand mudsnail.
“This tiny snail, reaching a maximum size of less than a half-inch, can reach densities in the 100,000 per square yard, blanketing stream bottoms,” wrote Watson in a report. “Impacts include biofouling of intakes, elimination of native benthic species, and impacts to native fisheries.” Meaning, snails could gum up waterways and complicate the area’s aquatic ecosystem.
“Most of these things get in from the aquarium business, and that’s illegal,” said Jonathan Harris, a DGIF biologist. “You can’t stock anything in the public waters without a permit.”
Invasive species can be long-term problems whose consequences can be hard to project. According to Harris, DGIF biologists in Northern Virginia have been struggling with the snakehead fish, which was added to the list of predatory and undesirable exotic species. Since then, it has been prohibited to own a snakehead fish without license or to import them. Although, as Landers surely knows, licensed fishers can legally eat them, provided they notify DGIF.
“We’re not finding significant impacts right now, but we’re trying to manage for the potential of what could happen,” said Harris. “Total effects often aren’t seen for 10 or 15 years.”
Meanwhile, Landers said there is a simple, direct means of dealing with the snails besides contacting DGIF. “I pick them up in Scottsville,” he said. There is potential, he added, for an Adopt-a-Highway-inspired program: Name a snail clean-up for aspiring environmentalists and pass out bags. Then, should you also search for your food locally…eat them.