Volunteers confront an invasion of black slugs near Whittier

Volunteers at the Whittier Slug-Out learned about Alaska’s invasive species and helped mitigate European black slugs near a popular cove on Prince William Sound.

WHITTIER — Volunteers wearing rubber boots and gardening gloves fanned into the woods on a Prince William Sound shoreline last week to confront an invasion. They plucked hundreds of slimy European black slugs from mud and vegetation along a rocky cove on Passage Canal.

Twenty-three people joined the Whittier Slug-Out this year, tromping along a small creek to fill their sandwich bags with non-native species. Prince William Sound Stewardship Foundation, the Kenai Watershed Forum and the U.S. Forest Service hosted the roundup, first held a few years ago.

Organizers say black slug eradication isn’t a realistic goal. Instead, the event also serves as an opportunity to educate participants about the toll invasive plants and animals can take on the environment. Outreach is an important way to defend against new infestations, said Maura Schumacher, an invasive species program coordinator for the Kenai Watershed Forum.

“We’re kind of using it as a segue, as a talking point to discuss invasive species in the broader sense,” Schumacher said. “We’re not talking about forest-wide slug control.”

“It’s a really effective way to give people a chance to get involved in what’s going on in their backyards and their public lands,” said Ellen Ray, a wilderness technician for Chugach National Forest’s Glacier Ranger District.

Event leaders also hope to mitigate the spread of black slugs in one location where watercraft are launched into the Sound. Schumacher said Smitty’s Cove was chosen because it’s a popular put-in for kayaks and personal watercraft.

“People can pick slugs up on their shoes. They can attach to the boats themselves,” Schumacher said. “... We’re trying to keep more slugs from moving out into the Prince William Sound.”

Schumacher said there is still a lot to learn about black slugs in the region, including the extent to which they have spread. There have been only preliminary studies on the diet of black slugs, she said. A risk assessment for the Copper River Delta, published by the Alaska Natural Heritage Program, said introduction likely occurred 20 to 25 years before the report was published in 2010.

“The European black slug is native to the British Isles and much of northern Europe and thrives in wet, cool climates,” the report said.

In Whittier on Thursday morning, the wrinkly, plump creatures were not hard to find. They were plucked like berries from dewy moss and the edges of the creek bed. They seemed particularly fond of chewing holes in the broad leaves of skunk cabbage.

Wendy Hudson joined her two grandsons. They love the challenge, she said.

“The kids like chasing the slugs,” she said. “The kids know it’s an invasive (species) and they don’t belong here. Even when we go camping or just out for the day, they’re collecting slugs.”

Carter and Joy Briggs brought their 2-year-old daughter, Byrin. Carter said Byrin already likes to help clean up trash when they go for walks.

“This is just one extra thing we can start picking up,” he said.

Each volunteer seemed to find dozens of the squishy gastropods. When the hunters called it a day, they bushwhacked back to the beach to deposit their haul in a bucket. Then the slugs were showered in salt to kill them.

“That’ll be their resting place,” Ray said.

Hudson’s 12-year-old grandson Patrick Igou dumped a bag on a flat rock and counted more than 50 slugs. That wasn’t enough to put him in first place, however. One man brought back more than 70. Julia Tantillo, who moved to Anchorage a week ago from Oakland, California, might have brought back the biggest black slug. When she removed it from the bag, it draped across the width of three fingers.

“Dude, look at the size of that slug she’s got. Holy crikey,” another volunteer said. “I think she could cut that thing in half and still have the biggest.”

Charla Hughes of Prince William Sound Stewardship Foundation said prizes would be given to the participant who brought back the most black slugs, and another for the finder of the biggest.

In total, about 500 slugs were collected from the vicinity of Smitty’s Cove on Thursday. It was an encouraging figure, she said. When the event was first held, more than 1,200 black slugs were collected in the same area.

Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at mlester@adn.com.